Failure in Design (and How to Recover)

In this post I want to talk about failure.

So far, I’ve mainly come across failure under the buzzword “fail fast, fail often”, which is used to explain an experiment-based approach of building products. By releasing features early and often, product teams get market feedback faster and can continuously improve the product based on what they learn.

But what does failure look like in my daily work as a designer?

Understanding failure

Recently I had a true failure experience when working on Sofar’s event page redesign. Starting as an aha moment, it turned into a confession I had to make to myself:

I didn’t succeed to translate what I learned about design best practices into my own practice and workflow.

This insight reminded me of Jared Spool’s talk I watched a while ago. He explains that people who become great in what they’re doing make a transition from literacy to mastery through practice. Learning and reading about things doesn’t mean that we’re capable of doing them. We have to practice them in real life to become masters of our profession.

So I decided to write down what I experienced in real life in the hope to make sense of it for the future.

Here’s how I failed:

1. I failed to step into the user’s shoes

This is such a basic UX principle that I always feel embarrassed as soon as I find myself in a situation where I haven’t completely thought through a solution from the user’s perspective. While I usually succeed in applying user-centered thinking when investigating the problem, I lost sight of the user’s context when it came to designing solutions.

2. I failed to ideate beyond the obvious

As soon as it’s clear what user needs are, it takes lots of creativity to come up with a solution that really meet those needs.

By early diving deep into research of existing solutions, I didn’t manage to set myself free from the current approach. I killed my creativity to identify new content that could be interesting and relevant for the user beyond helping them accomplish their task.

3. I failed to explore multiple solutions

Although I explored many solutions during the sketching phase, I settled too heavily on one approach when the time came for higher-fidelity prototypes – and I tried to push it through different states and scenarios with all forces.

I love Julie Zhuos illustrations of junior designers vs. senior designers, because they remind me of how design should work instead.

The design process of a junior designer vs. a senior designer. Illustrations by Julie Zhuo.

However, constantly exploring multiple solutions is harder than it seems when bringing this concept into practice. Picking one approach and moving on seems inevitable in agile environments and projects with a high complexity where one design idea quickly evolves into multiple scenarios and states. Applying different design ideas to all these scenarios and states would result in a lot of work (and waste).

How to recover from failure

The good thing is: If you understand why you failed, you’ll become able to turn the tide and find a better approach.

1. Empathy – See the whole picture, not just the thing you’re designing

It’s easy to lose track of the context in which the experience you’re designing takes place, especially when you’re working on a project for months and already started to design small details like buttons and micro interactions.

I learned that it’s never too late to (re)investigate the experience on a broader level and regain an understanding of the context. These are three simple steps to achieve that:

  1. Analyse the common user journey using analytics and write down what users might already know and what they are looking for when coming to the page you’re designing.

  2. Now gather information and content pieces you need to provide in that moment of the experience.

  3. Then prioritise the list based on user goals and motivations you know from research.

There are also several time-efficient ways to let user insights sticking around after research is over, like putting user personas everywhere in the office or attaching quotes from interviews near your desk.
However, the best way to not lose track of your users’ goals and contexts is to test your concepts with them early and often. Even informal chats with users or sitting in testing sessions which are not related to your project can remind you of how they experience your product.

2. Ideation – Reserve time for out-of-the-box thinking at the beginning of the project

Design is above all about problem solving. But sometimes solving a problem is not enough. User satisfaction is so much more than task completion. Therefore design often has to fulfil other jobs, like engaging users on an emotional level, telling a compelling story or being fun to use.

Going crazy in an early ideation phase is important to not end up with a better version of the status quo, but the best experience possible.

Therefore, start ideation solely with what you learned from user research and use these insights as an anchor for any ideas. Gather inspiration outside of the actual problem space and get your team together for a brainstorming session. It’s collaboration where ideas get born you couldn’t come up with on your own.

There will be enough time for compromises after this initial discovery phase. Frequent developer check-ins and design critiques with your team are good formats to reveal and discuss constraints.

3. Exploration – Keep your creativity muscles flexible throughout the whole design process

Problems can change and solutions with them. The more often you show your design to people, the more you will learn. What you learn has even the power to disrupt the solution you were working on for weeks. Don’t be frustrated.

Instead, take a step back. Remind yourself of the good feeling you had at the beginning of the project when your head was full of ideas. Bring back some of these ideas and roughly sketch new ones on paper. Get some inspiration from dribbble or your other favourite resources. Think of each element as one contributor to a better experience rather than changing the whole setting. This will keep changes efficient and you won’t feel overwhelmed, considering the time already spent.

Learn fast, learn often

This quick analysis was a way for me to better understand what failure could mean in the design context. Although my failure didn’t have an impact on real users or businesses, I experienced how the feeling “I failed” suddenly hit me.

In my case, I failed due to a lack of empathy, ideation and exploration – some of the core design skills. To leverage the learning aspect of “fail fast, fail often”, I wrote this post first of all to learn from my failure and adapt my working based on what I learned.