Category Product Design

On Failure

I’m fascinated by the stories of company failures. For me (as I’d hope it is for most) it’s not professional jealousy but rather a opportunity to learn. Another plus -learning from the mistakes of others is a lot less painful than learning from your own.

Companies succeed through a combination of hard work, good luck and timing, but how does a well established company at the top of it’s game manage to lose it’s way?

Survivorship Bias is the theory that we tend to focus on success stories and not examine enough the ones that ended in failure. Alasdair Croll brought up a great example at a LeanUX talk I recently attended. As the story goes, during the Second World War the Allies studied the bullet hole patterns in returning bombers with the intent of adding additional armour to those areas. Then someone pointed out that these were the planes that made it back, and in fact what they should be doing is adding protection to the undamaged areas. Planes that suffered damage in these areas were the ones that didn’t come home, so their vulnerabilities weren’t studied.

So, to extend the analogy to business, let’s look at some former high fliers and see where they took the heaviest fire.  

When I was cutting my teeth in print design in the mid-’90s QuarkXpress claimed to have 95% market share of the graphic design/layout market. Quark and Photoshop were pretty much all we used. But through a series of compounding strategic mistakes, Quark opened the door for InDesign to completely take over the market. This excellent post by former Vice Magazine art director Dave Girard spells out Quarks downfall in great detail. It’s a fascinating story.

Once or twice a month, Daring Fireball’s John Gruber digs into a topic with a feature-length post. In Microsoft, Past and Future Gruber suggests that ‘Peak Microsoft’ occurred sometime around the year 2000, when Windows, like Quark, had 95% of the market for desktop operating systems. But signs that Microsoft has been unable to evolve to the new computing landscape, claims Gruber, are everywhere. 15 months in, Windows 8 sales are a third lower than Windows 7 during the same period. Chief architect of Windows 8 Steven Sinofsky, fired. Ballmer has stepped down.


As the Upton Sinclair quote goes; “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it”. Gruber suggests Ballmer is guilty of this, not accepting how fundamentally the iPhone changed the landscape, not believing the sweeping change in how iPads and smartphones would create a post-PC market, and that Microsoft couldn’t capitalize accepting how fundamentally the iPhone changed the landscape, not seeing early on how iPads and smartphones would create a post-PC market, and later, his inability to effectively lead Microsoft through that change.



image credit: @lmanul

The open hostility of the various decisions at Microsoft is widely known. How this has affected Microsoft’s ability to innovate and respond to the market has rarely been better illustrated than a 2010 NYTimes Op-Ed by former MS VP Dick Brass. (read: Microsoft’s Creative Destruction)


“When we were building the tablet PC in 2001, the vice president in charge of Office at the time decided he didn’t like the concept. The tablet required a stylus, and he much preferred keyboards to pens and thought our efforts doomed. To guarantee they were, he refused to modify the popular Office applications to work properly with the tablet.

So once again, even though our tablet had the enthusiastic support of top management and had cost hundreds of millions to develop, it was essentially allowed to be sabotaged. To this day, you still can’t use Office directly on a Tablet PC. And despite the certainty that an Apple tablet was coming this year, the tablet group at Microsoft was eliminated.”

Consider that. Microsoft had a 10-year jump on Apple in building a tablet computer, and spent hundreds of millions of dollars doing so. And yet Microsoft’s top executives failed to address internal – INTERNAL – conflicts that doomed a project costing hundreds of millions of dollars to failure. Not only did they fail to manage the internal conflicts, they failed to grasp what these conflicts meant to the success of their project.


 Here is one of my personal favourite stories on this theme. Think of how absurd it is that Sony, dominant in electronics in the 70’s, and inventors of the ubiquitous Walkman cassette player in the 80’s, somehow missed the market for personal MP3 players. While Sony hardly qualifies as a failed empire, the story of how they fell from such a dominant position in the consumer electronics sector is fascinating, and it goes back to the loss of Sony’s Betamax format to the VHS standard.




Sony’s strategic mistake was to bet that Betamax’s superior picture quality would win the day, while the competing VHS consortium invested heavily in exclusive or first-rights content deals. Consumers voted for the more tangible benefit – better access to content – over the less tangible picture quality. Eventually Sony effectively exited the consumer VCR market (though the Beta technology continued to have a good run as an industrial format, where quality was an issue and pre-recorded content wasn’t).


Believing they had made a strategic mistake in not having control over a significant content library, Sony’s US division spent over $5B in 1987 and 1989 to purchase CBS records and Columbia Pictures. Sony’s goal was to use content as the carrot to encourage consumers to adopt new recording formats they had developed, including DAT and MiniDisc.


But neither format caught on with western consumers, and the significant library of content Sony had amassed became a millstone in how the company adapted to the rise of file sharing and the MP3 format, which undermined the ability to extract revue from content. Despite clear evidence that there was a huge market for a Walkman-like MP3 player to hold the billions of music files being shared by music fans, Sony muddled along with other manufactures developing MP3 players that held a couple of dozen songs at best. Adoption was hobbled by Sony’s DRM requirements – any songs you put on the device had to be encoded in Sony’s proprietary format.


Sony as a company was hamstrung by it’s unwillingness to allow it’s separate divisions to compete openly against each other. In fact, at one point during the Napster era, an association of major record labels (including Sony Music) launched a suit against multiple electronic manufacturers (including Sony Electronics). Sony was, in effect suing itself.


We own the market. Undoubtedly Quark, Microsoft and Sony made that statement repeatedly during the good times – and they were always wrong. A company does not control a market. A company with 95% share of a given market is only there by the grace of its customers. Should a better or cheaper competitor be successful at communicating its benefits to new customers, market share shifts, sometimes dramatically so.
Mobile phone design before and after iPhone introduction in 2007


The folly of these business empires is mistaking dominance for power. The automotive Big Three failing to respond to the superior quality of Asian imports. Blackberry for chasing new markets while failing to aggressively innovate to deliver new value to its existing customers. The music industry, for attempting to litigate out of existence a technology that customers clearly loved. Customers hold the power. They always have. A company that is not organized from the top down at ensuring they are responding to the market is an empire ripe for a fall.

The Hidden World of Experience Design

UK blogger and UX designer Peter Smart’s excellent post proposing an industry-wide rethink of the humble boarding pass is a perfect example of what is increasingly referred to as ‘experience design’.

There is no shortage of real-life examples of products and services we encounter every day that suck. Where product teams (which include designers) bring value to the companies we work for is in evaluating our products based on the experience of using them (see eat your own dog food) and working to improve the suck factors.

Experience design goes beyond typical product design by taking a broader view of how using the product makes you feel – sounds a little airy-fairy I know – but think about the last time you purchased something from an Apple store. Do you remember how it felt to walk out of a packed store with your purchase without wasting any time lining up at the cash register? By rethinking the retail experience by providing floor staff with handheld checkout terminals, Apple substantively changed how customers feel about the Apple store experience.

This is not the first time airline boarding passes have been called out for a redesign, but Peter Smart puts the key focus on usability and experience, not about simply cleaning up the design. Smart’s proposal also works within some very practical constraints: the boarding pass is still the same standard size and information is still printed in black ink. The little design touches – adding the destination weather at arrival time and leveraging the existing perforation so the boarding pass fits perfectly in a passport with just the Flight number and departure gate showing – those are the clever bits that make all the difference.


Jack Dorsey understands experience design. The co-founder of Twitter and CEO of payment startup Square recently spoke in detail about the mission of Square: not just to make payments easier, but to reinvent the experience of digital payments.

The biggest challenge with experience design is that we need to uncover parts of the customer experience that are often hidden – because we take them for granted. Status quo is the enabler of poor experience design. Boarding passes haven’t changed much in decades, and they function reasonably well. But if you fly often enough, you might re-imagine how a better boarding pass could make the experience better. Dorsey talks about coming at the experience design of Square from the perspective of a consumer, not a merchant, despite merchants being Square’s direct customers. Putting a lot of thought into what many would treat as an afterthought – the payment receipt – shows a commitment  to evaluate every customer touchpoint and make improvements that contribute to the overall experience.

As a digital product team we arguably have complete control over customer experience on the digital side of the business. At the Globe and Mail, where I work, we have roughly a million unique visitors each day navigating our web site on any number of devices, using one of our native apps, or signing up for a subscription service online. Every screen, menu and click is part of the overall Globe experience. Every detail is the result of the decisions we make, and collectively that defines the experience.

So sweat the small stuff. Details matter. Constantly evaluate every customer  interaction point, and rank improvements on a PICK chart. Talk to you customers regularly to understand their hassle maps. Incorporate grey label customer feedback tools like UserVoice or GetSatisfaction right into your digital products – believe me they will be a hundred times better, faster and cheaper than anything you could build yourself. I’m also a fan of Net Promoter as a simple, trackable metric of customer satisfaction – it will tell you if you are moving the needle in the right direction and give you verbatim customer feedback you might otherwise miss.

Experience design isn’t an entirely new concept – in some ways it’s no more than a new coat of paint on the old adage about the customer always being right. But with better tools to understand the customer experience and the ability to quickly deliver iterative improvement a on digital products, our ability to respond has never been better.

Developing Products in the Real World

Via @isaach a short but great post about how P&G invented the Swiffer. Some good lessons for anyone developing products for a target market: observe people in the real world and how they deal with the problem you are trying to solve.

Product Idea: Radio Rewind

I’ve had this idea for a while, but listening to The Sunday Edition on CBC this morning I had a clear idea of the actual user experience. The radio was on, but I was in and out of the kitchen when I heard an interesting bit of an interview (NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, as it turns out). Just as I really began to pay attention, the interview was over.

It would be simple enough for radio manufacturers to add a little flash memory to their products and allow users to ‘rewind’ the live stream they are listening to. Most live-streaming video interfaces already have this feature. For your standard tabletop radio, imagine a couple of simple push buttons:

Tap the 30 second button to go back a bit, or twice to go back a minute. The 5 minute button takes you back a bit further. The specific durations aren’t important, but that’s the simple idea. A car radio might have a slightly different interface as it already has multifunction knobs for volume and tuning. Tap the rewind button and use the tuning knob to roll back in 5 second increments.

I’m surprised someone hasn’t created this already – (update – Sirius has this in many of their models). I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve zoned out as they read the weather and don’t catch what the announce has said until they’re onto Peterborough and the Kawarthas. Or missed that artist name, or wanted to hear a really interesting 15-minute interview from the top.

update Jan 12/14: Just to note a couple more user stories to this – once you have set the rewind function it will continue to buffer and time shift your radio stream (i.e you will always be 30 minutes or whatever behind the live broadcast) until you a) turn off the radio b) press and hold one of the rewind buttons for 3 seconds (some sort of audio cue would confirm). Also, a slow-strobing LED would indicate when the radio steam currently playing is time shifted. A digital readout telling you exactly how many minutes the audio has been shifted might be nice, but seems like overkill.


I prefer minimal but well thought-out interfaces, the less clutter the better. The Tivoli Model One (with the very handy addition of Bluetooth input) is a can’t miss example of a perfectly designed product.

Reverse Showrooming

Showrooming – the practice of cruising brick-and-mortar stores for a hands-on look at a product but buying it for less online – has been cast as a threat to traditional retail. Target went so far as to pull Kindle eReaders from their shelves to protest Amazon’s active encouragement of the practice.

My personal experience is quite the opposite. I’m a patient shopper. When I think of a thing I want to buy, I research the crap out of it. This is a lot easier with sites like The Wirecutter that can narrow down your choices to a few solid contenders and layer in some candid opinion. But when you find yourself looking at an unfamiliar product in a store at what seems like a reasonable price, what do you do? Of course, you pull out the smartphone and Google it.