Why do designers fail? Input wanted

I’m finishing up my slides for a talk next week at UIE 13 in Cambridge, MA. The title is “Why designers fail and what to do about it”.

I’m sure there are a zillion reason’s designers, like any professionals, fail. What I’m looking for are habits you’ve identified in designers you think sets them up not to achieve what they seem to want to (making great, easy to use, things).

Here’s a sample of the long list I’ve identified:

  • Assuming other people understand design and care about good design
  • Not seeking power when power is required to deliver on an idea
  • Being shy / passing opportunities to pitch ideas
  • General incompetence (not as good at designing things as they think they are )

My goal isn’t to bash designers here, and in the talk I offer solutions & positive examples.

Instead here’s what I’m hoping for: there are many proffessional designers in the world, but not many things we can buy that are designed as well as i-phones and Porsches – why is that? How do designers fail, whether it’s their fault or not, to bring great things to the world?

I’m thinking there are 3 categories: Failures of the designer’s psychology, Failures of the designer’s skill, and failures of the organization.

Love to hear your opinions – thanks.

23 Responses to “Why do designers fail? Input wanted”

  1. Greg

    Constraints on creativity can cause design failure…
    “Copy our competitor but make the icon blue”
    Few companies have the patience to create something. It’s easier to create a knock off.

    Organizations often ask designers to think inside the box. “Just make it look pretty, don’t worry about the other stuff.”

    Great designs come from patient companies willing to iterate to get it right.

    (Let me buy you a beer when you’re in town)

  2. Percy

    1) Managers who insist on making their design look like everyone else’s and don’t want to take risks. (as Greg said above.)

    2) Managers who don’t understand the nuances of design and want the “latest” technology no matter what (latest being the one that’s getting the hype.)

    3) Managers who define design as the “look” and don’t care about anything else. Or, ignoring the way things work and worrying about the way things look.

    4) Wrong people doing design. Managers may not realize that designing is not everyone’s cup of tea and while some people may be able to design stuff, sometimes you need specialist designers.

    1) Not enough testing, especially usability testing. I’m not just talking about testing in usability labs or conducting special tests, sometimes even a design walk-through can catch some issues. For e.g.: In Asia, ESPN-Star (http://www.espnstar.com/) redesigned their site and the schedules page is a nightmare to use. The old one was a bit of a pain but this one’s worse and could’ve benefitted from some user testing.

    2) Conviction: I’ve seen designers being bulldozed by other people’s opinions because they don’t have enough conviction or belief in their design and can’t defend it or explain why it works.

    3) Lack of empathy: With the user of course.

    4) Language skills: Some designs are ineffective or confusing because the language used is ambiguous.

    5) Foolish consistency: E.g. We’ve used two words for titles everywhere, we should stick to that.

    6) Not separating the code from the design: By code, I mean what has to be done to make the design work. Sometimes, and not all designers do this, I’ve noticed that the decision to go a particular way is based on the path of least effort or least complexity. As in, if we go that way, we’ll need to create a new table in the database, or do that, so we’ll go this way, which is easier.

    7) Focus on the “wrong” things: Some designers seem to worry more about colour, the images/photos to use, than on important issues like the usability of their design.

    8) Being blindly loyal to a technology: This could be about anyone in the software/technology world. A person who insists on using a specific software/technology (or even a method) no matter what is at some point going to hit a wall, which will require him/her to compromise on the design.

    Hope this is useful.

  3. Jeffrey

    I think one of the biggest reasons is “safety.” This might masquerade as following trends/competitors, or committee-based groupthink, but design so often gets “watered down” by a stakeholder in the process (the CEO doesn’t like that it is blue or the PM think it’ll be too edgy…). Trying to be safe instead of original or remarkable means that you get a safe, middle-ground design.

    I think that it’s a very easy thing to do – and I think that’s party why Apple works is that there is a dictator at the top who has good taste and enforces it (and obviously great designers – but the point of your question is that great designers don’t always produce great designs).

  4. Scott

    Wow – great stuff guys (& Percy, that rocked).

    Keep it coming.

    Greg – beer is always good. Maybe lunch on Monday (13th)? I’ll send u email.

  5. Harry Brignull

    Why do designers fail?

    The designer has a wonderful concept. As the alloted time passes and the design gets implemented, it becomes increasingly evident that the implementation provides a poor user experience. This is an awkward truth that would require further time, money and pain for the accountable stakeholders. As such, everyone puts their heads in the sand and hopes that it will be “good enough” for success. After all, no-one else is complaining.

    The “genius designer” myth
    The designer has a good idea, but it’s a novel approach to an unfamiliar problem. Their managers subscribe to the “genius designer” myth, and the designer isn’t given capacity to iteratively design & research. So the designer has to ‘shoot in the dark’ and go with their best guess of what will work. When it gets launched, they realize the design has failed and needs a great deal of further optimization.

    Cumulative error in communication:
    The designer has a vision of how the product should work. It is inefficiently documented and much reliance is placed on verbal explanation. The verbal explanations become weaker and weaker as they are passed from person to person around the team. Members of project team are continually resourced onto other things, so a shared vision never materializes.

    Lack of political clout:
    the designer has a great idea, and is skilled enough to see it through, but does not have the power to make sure it lives the perilous journey all the way from their sketches to the light of day.

  6. Laurent

    In addition, I think that you should also divide the failures in 2 categories: safety (no inovation, not efficient/beautiful as it may be…) design and bad (not needed, not user friendly,…) design.
    Depending on the category, reasons may be different.

  7. Arturo Pina

    My modest 2c:

    1) Ivory tower syndrome. “The world is wrong if they can’t appreciate my design”

    2) The law of numbers. The vast majority of designs will always be average, because the average designer is average too.

    3) Coming up with a great design is one thing. Succeeding is quite a different beast, then you can argue whether that’s a failure or not…

  8. Mark Denovich

    #1 reason: over-estimating the user.

    This includes over-estimating:

    the user’s willingness to change (good enough is hard to beat)
    the user’s ability to recognize the potential of good design (cost/benefit)
    the user’s willingness to climb a learning curve
    the user’s willingness to be different
    the user’s ability to learn/teach themselves

  9. alex harris - alexdesigns

    I’ve been managing web designers since 2001 (full time and freelance). Two brief view on why designers fail:

    1. Lack of personal branding and not specializing on a niche. A designer that focuses on too many different projects (or styles) tends to be spread thin. I see more successful designer being known for something specifically and be the authority on that niche

    2. Not understanding supply and demand. The busier a designer is, the more they should charge. It is better to have 2 great paying clients than 10 low paying clients. Too many projects at once causes overlap, delayed projects and designer burn out. Resulting in low creativity.

  10. Tim

    We build a web-based enterprise line of business application (Project Control/Administration for construction and facilities).

    We find that successful solutions require the following:

    1) a great understanding of domain and what the users need to accomplish
    * you need to not only understand the business, but then come up with ways to do it better than it is currently being done.
    * I figure the latter bit is 10x harder than understanding what someone’s doing now.

    2) a great understanding of the technology stack and its opportunities and constraints.
    * Hard to build something if you don’t understand the tools you have to work with.
    * We’ve had a lot of proposed designs that just don’t fit “on the rails” with what can be done efficiently. The issue isn’t we can’t handle radical changes, it is the fact the designers didn’t understand it would be a radical change and all of the related ramifications that need to be considered.

    3) A great understanding of the existing product.
    * If you are working on an existing product (like everyone eventually does!), you need to know it inside and out so you can propose changes that don’t break it.
    * We have had proposed solutions that simply don’t address constraints that are in the product.

    4) A good understanding of product design and what works for users.
    * if you have all of the above, it is great to think about solutions that work well with the way humans interact with computer.

    For our product, I rank the priority of the skills roughly in that order.

    For other products I the priority flips around a bit. If you are building a phone, you domain knowledge isn’t going to make or break you. If you are building a fighter plane control system, I can only imagine which priority dominates – perhaps all are equal!


    PS – what’s all this talk about beer??!!

  11. Scott

    Tim: don’t conversations about failure and beer go hand in hand? Mine do :)

    Interesting that you put domain first – I typically argue the opposite, that a good design thinker can learn (if interested) the core challenges of any domain, and in fact might have advantages as an outsider over people who have only ever designed for a single domain.

    I wouldn’t say it’s always true, but i believe (doubt I can prove it) domain is not the most important criteria.

  12. Brett

    These are some amazing responses!

    Some of my initial thoughts, and many of these same ideas have been touched on already by the others…

    Failures of the designer’s psychology- ars gratia artis, rather than design that is intended to be functional.

    Nobody likes to hear that their baby is ugly. Designers can bring too much emotion into their creations, rather than taking serious consideration of thoughtful input.

    In moments of creative indecision, there can be a tendency to follow a current trend, improve a prior design, or revive a design from history, or “find a happy medium” among any of these when there is a perfect opportunity for innovation. Sometimes those approaches are effective and others fall short of expectations. Architecture, performing artists, and consumer electronics are fields that I see either chasing fads, improving specs, or resurrecting retro stuff “old-is-new.”

    Failures of the designer’s skill-
    Designers can often rely too much on their once-great “trademark” style, patterns, or tools. Again, this can work: “I know this painting is a Renoir” or “Jonathan Ive designed this iPod” or it can become stale: who here still listens to Foreigner or drives a Plymouth Prowler? Our culture devours hot stuff to the point of sudden burnout; so I guess its important to know when to quit or throw a changeup to keep your customers guessing.

    failures of the organization- organizations can place too many creative and economic constraints on designers. Organizations place too much emphasis on customer research encourages making incremental improvements to build a better mousetrap. Organizations fail to create the right structure or hierarchy for design decisions, as democracy can cripple design teams or encourage groupthink.

    And lastly, organizations summarily dismiss new and bold design if there is any doubt of profitable market reception.

  13. Richie de Almeida

    The worst designs I have to implement usually have one or two things in common:

    1) “Designs from the ivory tower”: All the work was done by one person without asking anybody else ‘What do you think of this?’ A second opinion is a wonderful thing. A third and fourth opinion is spectacular!

    2) “The first solution is not always the best solution”: In some ways this a more severe case of item #1. Overwhelmed by the scope of work or short deadlines, the designer assembles a solution that is little better than a restatement of the requirements. Usually the first solution is your brain demonstrating it understands a problem it hasn’t mastered yet.

    But neither is a lost cause. Confidence and developing resources: mental (critical thinking) and personal (accepting criticism from others) can overcome these problems.

  14. James Reffell

    This is easiest for me to think of in terms of my own failures as a designer — especially my first really *big* project, which was successful enough to ship and be used be actual users, but failed spectacularly on pretty much every other front.

    One reason for failure was simply not having enough information — about the users, the technology, the business, the politics surrounding the project. You could see this as a failure of psychology (I was too shy to ask all the questions I had), of skill (I didn’t know *how* to ask the questions, or even what the right questions were), or organization (the organization was set up in a way that incented information hiding). I’m pretty sure that all three were happening — and if only one of those had worked well, the product would have been *much* better for it.

    The second was accepting two “primary” goals for the project. Of course they came in conflict — and even as a rookie I knew that was going to lead to trouble. It was a great way to learn that split goals lead to broken products.

    Of the three categories I think psychology is the most important — if your mindset is right (and for me “right” is a fine balance of amiable receptivity to input and feedback and bloody-minded persistence in pursuit of the better) then the skills will come, including the skill of bending the organization to your needs.

  15. Ashish R Joshi

    In my opinion some of the reasons (attributable only to designer’s skills and psychology) why some designers fail are –
    1.Not recognising the basic premise of a good design – which is – every design must be perceived by the intended users to be creating more value (here perception is more important than may be the actual value)
    2.Lack of in depth knowledge and awareness about the intended user community
    3.Sometimes ignoring the golden “KISS” (Keep it SImple ***) rule

    Over and above these organizational constraints, compromises, wrong judgements, inaccurate data, rigid structures etc are the usual suspects anyway..

  16. Maxim

    Sometimes designers fail because they are not trying to explain their point/design to client. When client have an idea in mind that is not going to work for him and designer see it, he has to try to explain it to him.

    Recent client of my company asked us to clone apple.com design with small changes for his industries. After explaining reasons why Apple design is successful and that they wont be able to maintain website in this case themselve (all visuals should be very polished and hi quality etc. and no of them has enough skills in photoshop) he agreed.

  17. Maxim

    Also sometimes designers fail cause they are trying to impress other fellow designers with what they do while dont paying enough attention whether it’s going to work for client or not.

  18. John Daughtry

    At the organizational level, there seems to be a lot of credence to the notion of conceptual integrity. But, we can take it a step farther.

    In Nauer’s “Programming as Theory Building”, he argued that design (in this case coding) is the construction of a theory of how a solution will fit a problem (and what the problem really is). Notably, he argued that this theory cannot be reconstructed post-hoc.

    This is another way to view conceptual integrity. Without the ability to maintain that conceptual integrity (via transition of designers, or conflicts between design decision makers) the theory becomes muddled.

    This view is also supported in Brook’s various arguments (latest is probably the Turing award speech) whereby he argues against “design by committee”. However, he perhaps takes the argument too far. Instead, one could rephrase to be “designing different theories” causes failure.

    If we expand your list to include more levels of analysis: individual, team, unit, organization, society… oh.. society. can’t blame them. But, it must be admitted that society isn’t perfect. An organization in Russia in the early 1980’s could have created a phenomenal design, but, that design fail due to societal influences.

    As for team, the underlying team could rot the design by not buying into the vision. This could also be viewed as a failure at the individual level. But, it isn’t a clear distinction. The argument could be rock solid, but they don’t buy into it because the designer is new and replaced someone they really liked.

    I good test for these may be to reverse the test.

    Can a bad design be successful because of these reasons? Certainly it can at the organizational and societal level. For example, Apple can release a bad iPod design that works because of prior successes (org). etc…

  19. mattybinks

    The number one reason designers fail is because they are not trained to be collaborative team members. They are trained in school to be lone wolves working in solitary confinement. Designers who have that type of education do not learn how to work well with clients, their team members, and the stress of having to meet expectations of the target audience.

  20. Tim

    Hi Scott,

    A follow-up to your comment/ question about “putting the domain at the top” of the priority list. (See Oct 6 @ 2:57 pm)

    I could have explained that point better.

    At the end of the day, if you don’t get who you are designing for and why, you are toast. The more you have to rely on others for the domain knowledge, the harder the designers job is.

    I think most people agree with that, and would also agree with the following: Where the expert designer can grok the domain/ market/ user they have a better chance of success.

    What most design ideologies wouldn’t agree with is there are times, such as my product/ domain, the non-domain design experts fail due to the fact they can’t grok the domain fast enough. It is to broad, too challenging, etc. They can have a valuable contribution, but it isn’t the chief designer of the product. At that point, it can be more effective to take the right type of domain person and improve their design skills.


  21. Justin D-Z

    In order for good design to succeed, you need a talented designer, a design-friendly organization and talented builders to execute on the design. The lack of any of these three factors will cause compromise on quality.

    If the designer produces a mediocre design, very few organizations or individuals are capable of steering it up from there. Most organizations are rewarded for delivering accurately to spec, which assumes the spec is good and which allows for incremental improvement but not significant overhaul.

    If the organization does not support design, many advancements and the research needed to support the development cost of those advancements will not be funded or will be compromised out based on deadline or cost. A good designer with a good design needs financial support and the incentive structure to validate the design and to defend dilution in the product cycle.

    Lastly, if the team who will realize the design is not talented (even with the right incentives, input and funding), then there will be failures to capitalize on the design’s positive nuances, there will be issues introduce that did not exist in the design and there will also be the usual un-communicated compromises due to team and project constraints. All of these things produce BIMO – beautiful in, mediocre out.

    A failed *designer* is a question of designer talent, but a failed *design* is a question of talent and priorities in several places.



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