Why We Fail

by Victor Lombardi

Cover image

Publisher: Rosenfeld Media
Copyright: 2013
ISBN: 1-933820-17-9
Format: Kindle
Pages: 248

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Subtitled Learning from Experience Design Failures, Why We Fail is a case study book. It defines experience design, discusses the usefulness of analyzing failure, and then walks through ten marketplace failures attributed to failures of user experience (as opposed to engineering or user interface) and tries to draw some conclusions about those failures and how they could have been prevented. Lombardi then presents a more general (if fairly simple) framework for iterative experience design, along with some discussion of how that approach could have helped in these cases.

Hardware and software designs can work properly but still fail with users and customers because the overall experience isn't right. Sometimes this is because something else got there first with more market share and people got used to it, sometimes it's because a system is too complicated, sometimes it's too simple, sometimes it's just uninspiring. Most of the news media coverage and many of the blog posts on this topic look to inspirational examples of successes. Lombardi points out here that successes can be accidental and failures are often more informative, a concept already common in many more mature areas of engineering. His hope, with Why We Fail, is to push a broader industry practice of taking apart and analyzing the failures. User experience design is still in its infancy, since many of the complex interactions now possible in modern hardware and software have just recently crossed into levels of complexity that qualify as experiences rather than interactions, and could benefit from more rigor.

The concept sounds great. The approach in Why We Fail is at least interesting; Lombardi tells good stories, and I think they do tell some useful lessons. Drawing general principles is harder, which is always the weakness of case-study books. Lombardi's own attempt doesn't go far beyond a familiar mantra of the scientific method, small and responsive teams, cross-functional teams with flexibility to address a whole range of technical and business issues, and honest and forthright analysis of and iteration after failure. All of this is doubtless good advice; none of it should surprise anyone with even a smattering of engineering background or familiarity with current software design philosophy.

The heart of the book is in the stories, and I did like that Lombardi captured a wide range of different designs. Included are embedded systems (BMW's iDrive), traditional software packages, web services of various types, and even a protocol (OAuth). Some were vaguely familiar and some were not familiar at all, although I don't follow UI and UX discussions to any large extent. In each case, Lombardi gives a short but effective introduction to the problem space and the product, walks through the design choices, and then talks about the failure. Usefully, he doesn't stop with the failure but continues the story through the reaction of the company to the failure and any subsequent actions they took, which in some cases contain their own useful lessons.

All of this, I should note, is a bit far afield of my own area of expertise (architectural building blocks and sub-surface components without as much direct interaction with the user), so I'm not the best person to judge the quality and originality of the analysis. But I liked Lombardi's approach and his analysis of multiple possible failure causes, and all of his conclusions seemed quite plausible and sensible given the case studies as described. I'm best-qualified to judge the chapter on OAuth, since I've worked extensively on web authentication systems, and his analysis of the challenges and user experiences in that case closely match my own. I didn't notice any significant errors, which is hopefully a good sign for the rest of the book.

As one might expect from a short book about a complex field aimed mostly at starting a conversation, there isn't much here that's earth-shattering, nor are there simple extractable principles that will make your experience designs better. As always, the takeaway boils down to "invest time and resources into this and try to think about it systematically," which of course is true of every possible axis of improvement for any product. (The challenge is usually where to spend those limited resources.) I will also note in passing that Lombardi assumes an entirely market-driven metric for success, and all of the case studies are exclusively commercial — not unexpected, since that's where most of the money and a lot of the resources are, but not that helpful for bespoke work where the nature of the problem is subtlely different.

But, despite the expected shortcomings — and the inherent weakness of the case study approach to analysis, which tries to pluralize anecdote to get data — I enjoyed this book. I also got at least one useful trick out of it: the premortem, to look for potential failure points in the experience before rolling out, or even designing, the product. It's a fairly light-weight book, but I think it's moderately inspirational, and I wholeheartedly concur with Lombardi on the merits of failure analysis as an engineering approach.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2013-10-25

Last spun 2013-11-02 from thread modified 2013-10-27