An Event Apart: Why Designers Fail

by Luke Wroblewski March 28, 2011

In his presentation at An Event Apart in Seattle, WA 2011 Scott Berkun shared stories, research, and ideas about Why Designers Fail and What to Do About It. Here's my notes from his talk:

  • To be better at any craft –do it a lot or study a lot of what other people did. There is lots to be learned from failures. When things go well, everyone is happy and things get forgotten. When we fail there is an opportunity to learn.
  • Why does design matter? Victor Papenek said “design is the underlying matrix of life.” In his book Design for the Real World. Any attempt to separate design from life is futile.
  • There are some things that are universal to all types of design. We can learn about design and problem solving by looking at design in other domains.

Take Responsibility

  • All designers fail 95% of the time. This is true for all creative work. And it is unusual in the professional world. The process by which we create is failure centric.
  • There are only two reasons why things fail. Wrong goals or goals were right but we failed to live up to them.
  • What to do about it? Own your mistakes, study failure and common situations, study how to avoid and mitigate failures.
  • Designers are apt to blame other people. Need to take more responsibility. You need to own the totality of what we’re creating.
  • Design has no failure analysis –we don’t have a lot of affinity for this or good methods for it either. Whenever someone dies, doctors have to do M&M –mortality and morbidity. It’s required for learning. Other professions: mission debrief, failure analysis, postmortem.
  • Design and architecture don’t have a history of analyzing failures. Architects don’t even come back to their structures after the unveiling of the building. There is no failure protocol.
  • There is a huge amount of data that shows we learn more during failure. Engineers learned more in the 5 years of study about bridges after a bridge collapsed than in the 20 years before the failure.
  • If you take the weak, insecure way out and don’t look back at what caused the failure, you are squandering an opportunity to learn.

Types of Failure

  • There are two kinds of failures: fundamental & artial/subjective
  • Fundamental: system collapse, people die, rare and dramatic
  • Partial/subjective areas: mixed results, failures of a different degree.
  • We must experiment to create knowledge so we have to fail.
  • The iPhone owns a huge debt to the Newton team. It was a failure but it paved the way for the Palm Pilot. The Xerox Parc was a commercial failure but it paved the way fro the future of computing.
  • Design thinking traps: category (obsessive taxonomy), puzzle (problem solving for its own sake), numbers (believing what’s measured is all there is), drawing trap (love the sketch more than what it represents). There is a vocabulary around these traps. We need to get better at using it.
  • Things that cause designers to fail: lack of conviction, take limited responsibility, etc. You can sum this by looking at the decisions from beginning to end of the project. What set of all decisions do designers take responsibility for?
  • The one skill that prevents most designers from moving forward is pitching ideas. But it’s hard to learn. All designers are ambassadors for good ideas. Some are perhaps just ambassadors of their own ideas. Good ambassadors are good to get along with.
  • Reframing problems is an accepted part of the process. Changing a variable or an assumption gives you a new way look at a problem. We often blame our organizations, clients, or team for being themselves.

Survey Results

  • 400 people responded to a survey about why designer’s fail. The results found Psychological, Skills, and Organizational issues.
  • “non-designers making design decisions” was one of the top issues in the survey. One could interpret this as blaming or that you need to go to where the decisions are being made –need to change roles, etc.
  • Designers vs. non-designers the correlation was very tight. They both have the same ratings for how important these things were.
  • Conclusions: consensus on top issues –same set of beliefs on why designers fail. Design is a failure point activity. We learn more from failures. One framework: psychological, skills, organizational
  • Top issues: persuasion and ownership.