Essays & Articles


Why We Fail (My Foreword)


Don Norman

Foreword to

Lombardi, V. (2013). Why We Fail: Real Stories and Practical Lessons from Experience Design Failures. Brooklyn, New York: Rosenfeld Media. (Why We Fail at Amazon.)

Embrace failure, avoid failure: these two, apparently contradictory statements are the opening and closing chapter titles of Victor Lombardi’s enchanting, insightful book. Embrace, yet avoid, the apparent contradiction being resolved by recognizing that the trick is to learn from other people’s failures, the better to be able to avoid them for yourself. The message of the book is summarized by its subtitle: “Lessons from Experience Design Failures.

Lots of people focus upon success, but failure is a far more effective teacher. I know this from my own experience: I’ve watched brilliant product releases such as Apple’s Digital Camera, the QuickTake, and its personal digital assistant, the Newton. I was an advisor to the company that produced the first digital picture frame, licensed to Kodak and released as the Kodak Smart Picture Frame. You’ve probably never heard of any of these three products, which is understandable: they all failed in the marketplace. But I learned more about business from those failures than from all the things I have done that succeeded. Success can make people feel good. Failure can make people better. But failure is a learning experience only if it is treated as one, with a reflective review of all that went right and all that went wrong.

Reflective review: That’s the power of this book. Fascinating case histories of product failures, coupled with careful analyses of the products themselves and, just as importantly, the marketing efforts and other components of their release and subsequent history. Lombardi doesn’t just focus upon the failures and weaknesses. We learn of the strengths of each product – what was done right – as well as the weaknesses – what was done wrong. Thus, in a detailed analysis of Microsoft’s Zune music player, its strengths and virtues are properly praised. The product was excellent. The failure lay in the auxiliary components of the product: how it was marketed, whether the advertising campaign was substantive and long-lasting enough to overcome the huge advantage already existing for the major competition. Lombardi makes clear that had Apple’s iPod not existed, the Zune would have been declared a marvelous offering and probably would have gone on to a well-deserved, hefty success. Just having a great product is not sufficient.

Products do not exist in isolation: they need a supportive surrounding environment. And above all, they must deliver a compelling user experience, one that allows purchasers to get excited by the potential and to overlook the weaknesses that all new products have. Lots of books and articles have analyzed failure from the perspective of business, or the technical features and functions, or company management style. The real power of this book comes from the exemplary lessons on the importance of User Experience, analyses from the point of view of the people who have to use the product. Experience is in the minds of the people, not in the product itself, which is one of the reason that the product itself is not enough. Similarly, great design is not enough. Great design is indeed required in order to provide the framework for great experiences, but design alone cannot do the job. The psychological environment plays a critical role, which is why great marketing is essential. Experience is subjective and illusory. It is emotion. And in products, it is essential.

The power of “Why We Fail” is that it goes beyond the surface analysis of design, technology, or marketing. Instead, it treats all of these factors as an interconnected, related system. The analysis covers the entire product offering, providing a deep analysis of the many factors that go into success or failure.

The stories behind failures make for fascinating reading. But this book offers more. It provides important insights into both what can go right and what can go wrong in a product offering. To make great products, we need to understand what makes some fail and others succeed. To all the aspiring, young entrepreneurs who are reading this: take heed. Embrace failure to learn from failure. Learn from failure to avoid failure.