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Book Review: Why We Fail: Learning from Experience Design Failures

January 21, 2019

Cover: Why We FailOne of my favorite things to do is to take photos of bad user experiences. I usually do this when I’m traveling or shopping—maybe because my senses are heightened when I’m trying to find my way around unfamiliar places or seeking out some new item to purchase. I would guess that many of you do similar things. I suppose this points to a paradox of experience design: it’s easier to identify examples of bad experiences than good ones. Good experiences just work without effort, so we don’t notice them as readily. When things are going well, they don’t make the news.

There are lots of examples of good user experience. A casual search online finds a variety of impassioned articles on the value of User Experience and how it contributes to an organization’s bottom line and ultimate success. We see many examples of how User Experience is good and how we can add value.

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Many think it’s better to focus on the positive impacts of User Experience on performance and encourage the emulation of best practices. After all, having a target to reach for can give us better direction on how to move forward than trying to avoid errors, which could send us down any number of wrong paths. However, in his book Why We Fail, Victor Lombardi makes his case early on for discussing why we fail and what we can learn from failure.

In an earlier book review, I posited the view that, in literature, evil characters are generally more interesting than the good guys. That thinking is what led me to pick up Lombardi’s book. One thing that drew me to this book was its broad approach to User Experience—not just talking about Web sites and mobile apps. Of the ten cases that Lombardi presents, less than half are Web sites. Plus, he wisely includes non-visual aspects of experiences such as ergonomics and product engineering.

Book Specifications

Title: Why We Fail: Learning from Experience Design Failures

Author: Victor Lombardi

Formats: Paperback, Kindle

Publisher: Rosenfeld Media

Published: 2013, 1st edition

Pages: 248

ISBN-10: 1933820179

ISBN-13: 978-1933820170

Lombardi’s Approach

A keystone of Lombardi’s philosophy in evaluating experience failures is his acknowledgment of the differences between engineering, design, and experience. The book presents a series of case studies that discuss truly innovative ideas. However, Lombardi’s research and narrative reveal critical mistakes in strategy and execution that doomed the products he’s evaluating.

Lombardi presents each example, discusses the lessons learned, then provides a summary of his findings. This is a repeatable, understandable, and perhaps most importantly, sharable approach to evaluating experiences.

One Example

Information security is a particularly interesting and important topic these days, given the number of services that are online, all of which require accounts and have conflicting standards for password strength. I’m not the first person to observe this, and OpenID deserves credit for recognizing the problem and providing a solution, flawed though it may have been.

As the book discusses, years ago, the creator of LiveJournal realized the impending challenge that the growing number of user IDs, passwords, and standards for creating user profiles would present. His solution worked well within the LiveJournal ecosystem and was attractive to other online entities because they could effectively offload responsibility for account creation to another system.

The idea that users could have a single identity that they could use across multiple sites is incredibly attractive. Tim Berners-Lee’s Solid project suggests that this need still exists and, because of the concern about the ownership of identifying information, may be on the rise. Lombardi identifies several shortcomings in the OpenID system, including the issuing authorities, who used different standards for establishing accounts. Technical problems could also arise if an issuing authority experienced an outage. Ultimately, it seems that the biggest barrier to adoption was the difficulty users had in forming a mental model for how their identities worked.

Following his structure for evaluating experiences, Lombardi provides a concise explanation of the experience, its problems, and ultimately, why it failed.

Nobody Is Safe from Bad Decisions

Apple is an interesting company. I reckon that, if I asked some random people to name companies who make user-friendly products, they would, more often than not, mention Apple.

While Apple is certainly one of the most successful firms in the world, the company is not perfect. Writing this article on a recently released MacBook Pro reinforces that notion. Despite its heavily marketed Touch Bar, this MacBook is widely considered to be one of the worst computers Apple has produced. This is just one example, and it’s not from the book. Of course, Apple has had its fair share of product flops—even during the Steve Jobs era—and Lombardi presents two of them in his book. While I won’t tell you what they are, I will say that they are just a small number of the experience-design failures that Apple has had over time.

The inclusion of Apple in this book serves as a warning: even a company that is as well regarded and capitalized as Apple makes errors in designing user experiences. It’s not unusual for executives or project teams to compare themselves to Apple in their pursuit of success in designing products and experiences. I see two vital lessons in the Apple examples.

First, teams may conclude that designing successful products is innate to Apple. Such comparisons would be an exercise in futility if other teams cannot achieve similar success. However, ┬áthis is clearly not the case. Apple’s history is littered with bad designs, poor execution, and sometimes, just bad timing. So teams should take solace in the idea that Apple is just another company like so many others.

Second, I’ve experienced project teams that were subject to a certain amount of hubris, erroneously assuming:

  1. Their team comprised smart people who wouldn’t make such experience-design mistakes.
  2. Investment in User Experience is not necessary.

However, Lombardi’s book shows that even a company as smart and successful as Apple has made missteps in designing products. Smaller firms who do not have users at the center of their focus—and, thus, shortcut research and design—cannot hope to achieve success without User Experience.

Conclusion

Frequently, a product’s user experience is not its single point of failure. Often, it’s just a matter of bad luck, bad timing, or a lack of capital. In virtually every case that Lombardi describes in this book, product teams identified a problem or opportunity and tried to design a solution. In some cases, the product teams were overly cautious, undercutting their product’s potential for customer adoption. In other cases, they developed interesting technology, but lacked a real application for it that would improve people’s life experiences.

If I were to develop a course on User Experience and business strategy, Why We Fail would certainly be on my short list for likely reading assignments. It is vital that UX professionals should have a grasp of product and organizational strategy, so they can identify when and where they can make a difference in the broader context. 

Vice President, User Experience at Metisentry

Owner of TheoremCX

Kent, Ohio, USA

D. Ben WoodsBen began his career in 1999, when businesses were just beginning to recognize the World Wide Web as a valuable tool. Prior to his appointment at Kent State, he held positions as a UX designer and UX manager. He has worked with global teams and a variety of consulting firms to deliver research and design that improved digital experiences for customers. He has also developed his organizations’ analytics discipline to track the performance of digital properties and identify opportunities for improvement. Ben’s company TheoremCX is an innovation firm that provides customer-focused solutions. He has developed solutions and corporate workshops for a variety of organizations around the world, including Eaton, General Electric, Knoch Corporation, and Orange S.A. Ben is the chairperson of UX Akron, a nonprofit professional network serving Summit and Portage Counties, as well as all of Northeast Ohio.  Read More

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