Failure by Design

Most days we stay in a safe zone with our work. In fact, it’s built into our thinking and how we process decisions. It’s called loss aversion.

Losses feel worse than gains feel good. Rationally we should treat losses and gains the same. But that isn’t the way we are built. Consider how people make decisions when buying and selling stocks. Most people will sell stocks that go up in value, but they will tend to hold onto stocks long term that are going down in value. Selling the losing stock will make the loss tangible and the feeling of that is much worse to deal with. No one wants to lose. It’s painful.1

We hold onto design directions on projects that seem to be going poorly, hoping that they might turn around. To stop and scrap it all would be admitting that you, as a professional, made a mistake and wasted the client’s money. Starting over is hard after a loss. So we build up boundaries to avoid it. Time is a precious commodity and we can’t risk losing time by taking our design too far into that unknown place. We find ourselves sticking with what is doable, acceptable, and that works every time.

Failure and loss can be good. If you aren’t finding failure in your design work, then you aren’t really exploring all the possible solutions.

Learn How to Fall

In the book “How We Decide,” Jonah Lehrer describes the things that affect our decisions and how we learn. He explains that the neurons in the brain are always trying find certain patterns. So, when it thinks it has figured out a pattern, and then gets it wrong, the neurons in the brain create something called a prediction error signal. It’s actually a learning signal. The brain is all about efficiency and is constantly trying to shrink the gap between what it expects and what actually will happen. The brain learns by making mistakes. It learns from the things that we get wrong.2

If you have children, or have ever seen a child learn to walk, you can see the process of loss and learning firsthand. There are a lot of banged up little knees and bumps on heads, as well as a good amount of tears. These are good things though. Every fall is growth. Every missed lunge to grab the couch teaches them a little more about identifying that distance.

However, if a parent were to stop their child from falling to avoid “failure” this would not help. She wouldn’t know what to avoid doing. Because basically whatever she did would be “successful” in the sense that she would be protected from falling. If she did fall in the future (which she would) it could be much worse. She wouldn’t know how to fall.

Lego Designers

I remember getting a big bucket of Lego’s for my birthday as a kid. This was more than a gift, it was a box of unlimited possibilities. Fast forward to today, and you’ll find most Lego’s come in a kit where the pieces are made to build a specific thing. Basically you build exactly what is pictured on the package using step-by-step instructions. This exactly what we find in design today. Lego Designers rely on recipes for success in their work. This might come in the form of a tutorial for a specific design, or simply imitating another website/app design to guide their work.

You can’t skip the failures and jump to success without losing something important. The thinking that goes into design is a hidden layer. If you don’t know why someone made design choices, you can’t really copy it. You can try to get there, but it will not be as successful for you as it was the for the original designer. Jason Fried of 37 Signals writes in his book “Rework”:

“You can steal someone’s words, images, or code instantly. And that means it’s tempting to try to build a business by being a copycat. That’s a formula for failure, though. The problem with this sort of copying is it skips understanding — and understanding is how you grow.”

The problem with being a Lego Designer is that it causes a sort creativity atrophy, where the problem-solving part of your brain shuts down from lack of use. There is no understanding from failed design choices. The only path of thought the mind has is to seek out an easy answer. At that point we just hope someone else has the exact design problem we have so we can cut-and-paste our way to success.

A Googol of Iterations

The articles on how to be a better designer focus on success and not on avoiding or dealing with failure. There are hard and fast rules to abide by. If we added up all the design advice and rules for success on every blog or in every book, we’d end up with a lot of boring and terrible design. This is why we find little success in things like a design by committee situation. Every voice is heard. We avoid upsetting individuals. Conjecture, politics, and personal taste together create a terrible solution.

It’s very easy to get caught up in the minutiae of avoiding any kind of loss and building up fail-safes along the way. Thinking like this causes additional pain adding more people to the decision making process or testing many many versions of the same detail to avoid a larger loss. When Doug Bowman left Google he wrote a post about their approach with design and avoiding the wrong choice with something as small as a color. They had it down to a science:

“Yes, it’s true that a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such minuscule design decisions. There are more exciting design problems in this world to tackle.”

Failure is Research

In essence, failure is research. This goes for design and user experience too. We learn from what we get wrong. Through the many iterations of design we can begin to find the patterns that work and those that don’t. A failed design is exactly what it sounds like. It doesn’t work. It misses the mark. It confuses the user. It takes too long to load. It just isn’t the answer. It’s all good research, though.

“I didn’t fail the test, I just found 100 ways to do it wrong.” — Ben Franklin

We can also find surprising success in our failures. Instagram is a fun way to share photos. You aren’t just uploading a standard photo, though. You get to customize and change the look of the photo with filters. You might make your photo look like it was taken with a LOMO, or, was stuck in a shoebox for a decade or two. If you think about it, those options were created through failure. No one wants their photo (normally) to have poor lighting or to fade. Those things happened when the technology for taking pictures was not where it is today. That failure of an image to hold its color for years is now a selling point in the Instagram experience.

As designers we need to embrace failure and find the success in it. Getting “bad” user feedback on a website or application that we worked on is good. We now know what to fix or adjust. We have to become comfortable with iteration and show our clients how to look at this as part of the process. If we waited until every idea is full baked, we would never present any solutions. Failure is not an end result if we have purpose and intention. It’s only a marker along the road to designing great experiences.

1) Loss Aversion – Jonah Lehrer on Science Blogs

2) How We Decide – Jonah Lehrer on

Image Credit: “Fail Whale” by Yiying Lu