3 reasons that could lead to design failure

August 22, 2016

Design Failure! I had this experience once early in my career – a very embarrassing one at that. I failed to gauge the business expectations. My strategy began nosediving the moment I started my presentation and went further into the depths of Mariana Trench by the time I was out of the meeting room. The feeling was bitter. More than the emotion of personal failure, it is the project delay and the resultant monetary loss that had hurt me a lot. The only blessing was the patience of my stakeholders, which is as rare as sighting a white tiger in the wild. That support did help me enormously, and I recovered. The experience taught me a precious lesson. It made me realise that I should be aware and awake all the time, which is the only approach that can avert failure much before it becomes a reality. It also made me observe things from a third person’s perspective to assess my progress on each task I perform.

With all that learning, I consider that these are the three key reasons that could lead to design failure.

A failure to understand the vision of the product

Fact – Stakeholders and the ideators are the ones who know more about what they can do and what they want to do.

A designer joins the party to facilitate their ideas and vision into a design and present it to the Users. I agree that a designer can add a lot more to the vision of the product with his thinking. But, it can only happen if he understands the product’s vision. Otherwise, he is bound to fly into a dreamland, and the results could turn out to be unrealistic.

So, how do you make sure you understand the vision as a designer? Interviews, you might say. Let’s see.
Remotely conducted Stakeholder interviews or discussions have their downside. No written communication is guaranteed to carry the right emotion. Consider this example, a colleague of mine once asked this question, via eMail, to a stakeholder – “What makes you think that your product would be the market leader in the next one year?”. The poor fellow’s intentions were honest. However, the stakeholder read it while imagining an arrogant expression on my colleague’s face. What happened next? I would better leave it to your imagination. But trust me, it took a long time to woo the customer back.

The in-person interviews/discussions are slightly better, but they too have their share of problems. Firstly, not every stakeholder is expressive enough during such communications. It could be because of their inability to articulate or because of their assumption that designers would know. Secondly, the designer failing to ask the right questions. There is a third case, which is not very rare, in which a stakeholder is good at articulation and expresses his opinions and expectations, but the designer fails to understand the responses in their real sense. Because of lack of empathy.

If you observe carefully, both in-person and remote discussions have issues that are more emotional than technical – failure to express, inability to interpret and lack of empathy. While a designer can fix the failures related to empathy and interpretation with some practice/experience, how do you fix the issue with stakeholder’s expression? Can we make them express better? Yes, we can, with the help of an inclusive action-oriented method called as a workshop. The value of a workshop is it gets everyone’s hands dirty. The intensive discussions and dynamic improvisations allow both the designers and stakeholders explore things much before they get implemented. Creative collaborations bring the best out of every individual and thus it gets easier to reach an understanding rather quickly. Just a word of caution, make sure there is someone in the team who takes care of arbitration and makes sure the discussions do not get side-tracked.

A failure to understand what users need

A while ago, I was reviewing UX of a product that acts as a configuration manager for an eCommerce site. The site deals with artefacts, and the prices are, more or less, set. So, this tool was something that the user doesn’t have to use 24×7. He opens it once in a day, checks a few things, makes few changes, if needed, and logs out. Nevertheless, this piece is very critical for the business. The designer, who worked on this project, did all his research, understood the typical flows and nailed down the expectations of the users. But, he failed to recognise that the product has a sparse usage, and when used, it deals with important stuff. This one lapse of assessment was enough to derail the information priorities of the dashboard. When I began digging up the reasons for the failure, I figured out that the designer never enquired about the usage time and Users never bothered to tell as they assumed that the designer would know.

Conclusion? Not everyone speaks everything. There is a lot to observe and a lot more to feel like them (users).

When you are speaking to users, remember that empathy is the key. They might not understand every question of yours and just like stakeholders, not all of them would be articulate enough to express. On numerous occasions, I have seen users failing to express certain things in words, but their actions added immense value. So, it is critical to observe them while they are performing tasks in their comfort zone and understand their emotions. By letting yourself freely understand their world with an open mind, you get to realise a lot more than what they speak.

I did write something on the aspect of User Discussions here.

A failure to strategise well

What is design strategy? I would call it a plan of rolling out each aspect of the User Experience while aligning them with the product’s vision.

In simpler terms, you are expected to take the design of a product from stage X to stage Y. There would be a lot of influential factors, like market dynamics, user expectations, technological challenges, funding, competition, social media presence, sales strategy, etc. that dictate the launch date of a product. Each aspect of your design might be dependent on one or more of these influencers. You need to plan carefully and release the various stages of UX while balancing them with these influencers.

Let me take a couple of examples to clarify further.

#1 – Consider a product that has an option to upload the profile picture. Your competitive analysis showed that providing the choice to take a picture via the webcam, as an add-on feature, would be valuable. The design team of yours comes up with a good intuitive design. However, you realised that the technical team cannot accomplish the task of capturing images from the webcam for the current release and can do it only during the next one. Then you will have to hold back the UX of that add-on feature until the next release – strategy influenced by technology.

#2 – You have a great UX that is simple to use and people love it. But the competitive analysis shows that there are 2-3 products in the market that are also aiming to achieve the same standard in the UX and have features similar to yours. It would, then, be only logical for you to add something on top of your UX that would ensure user retention in the long run. Unlike the previous example, here there is a need to think ahead of time. You are expected to consider all the entities other than your design that could help you in user retention. Social media integration could be a solution, or it could be gamification or something else.

If you look closely, a careful analysis of all the internal and external influencers is a must while you are strategising your design. You may achieve this only if your thinking is inclusive and not exclusive.


Believe me, any failure in design would leave you gasping for breath. It chokes you, but you need to learn to stay composed and not get bogged down by emotions. Only then you can find the best possible way to fix it. Thus I conclude that the best approach is to stay aware and awake all the time. You can see a possible failure much before it becomes apparent to everyone.

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