Tips & Resources

Are You Falling for Design Failure?

Sam White
Sam White June 11, 2017 • 0 min read

You know those little frustrations that happen over the course of the day? Many of them are actually moments of design failure — the gap between the promise a brand makes to you, and the product you actually get.

Your life today was probably full of little frustrations

This was today’s frustration for me: 11 a.m., and I’m already at 9% battery life on my iPhone.

So I run to Best Buy and pick up the Mophie, a phone case battery you can use on the go. As promised, it keeps my phone from dying until I can charge it. But the first real interaction I have with the product is when I try to charge it, and can’t. The Mophie has a Lightning connector (iPhone charger) adaptor on the INSIDE to plug into my phone, but on the OUTSIDE it gives you a standard micro-USB port.

Every cord I own has a Lightning connector on the end of it; in my car, at my office, beside my bedside table, in my kitchen. I’ll have to replace all of these to use the Mophie the same way I charge my phone now. But this was the real killer: There is no way to plug the headphones in without snapping off the bottom of the Mophie and feeding the headphone cord through, plugging it into your phone, then snapping the Mophie back together. I couldn’t imagine letting one of my designers get away with this product decision!

Why was these decisions made? I can only speculate — but it definitely was not with the end-user in mind. So while the product was effective in its initial use, it’s now become a point of inconvenience for me. It’s going to make me angry every time I use it.

So I returned it. And I’ll probably never buy another Mophie product again.

At Cortex, here’s how we avoid design failure

In the design world, we call this design failure — the gap between what a brand promises you and the product you actually get. You’ve no doubt experienced moments like this, wishing a product was built better or was easier to use, but these small moments of frustration begin to add up. It’s the effect of design failure that’s problematic: when your customer begins to resent not just the product, but the brand itself.

So here’s what we do:

WATCH, and pretend you’re someone else: Ethnography is a key component of this observational design stage, and entails genuine participation in the social group of interest. Like anthropology, it looks at a target customer’s life as a system and environment.

If we design something for a surgeon, for instance, we get as close to experiencing the world from the surgeon’s perspective as we can. If we can enter the surgical ward with them, we do that. If we can observe them while they’re operating, interview them right after, and shadow them during the day, that’s the next best thing. We soak in that experience, collect data, and really understand what kind of problem we are trying to solve.

ethnography visit with designers

PLAY, like no one is watching: This is the stage of free exploration that’s all about challenging assumptions and developing uber-creative (and sometimes strange!) possibilities. Sometimes this means changing the way to think about a problem, turning a solution on its head and exploring it from a 180-degree perspective. We bring pen to paper, drawing iterations of the product that we think represent solutions to the problem. We visualize all the possibilities first in rough thumbnails, then in greater detail as themes and solutions begin to emerge.

Cortex designers looking over concept sketches

BUILD, then build again: At this point we can prototype our visual ideas to see if our assumptions are right (it’s much easier to catch design failure issues here!). Sometimes, we make minor adjustments to get a product to near flawless usability. Sometimes, there are many possibilities that take more time to explore and prototype. But in all cases, we want to experience a breakthrough, when the strongest of our ideas come together.

engineers at Cortex laughing over a prototype build

A build breakthrough in action

Cortex was given the task of designing a consumer-friendly camera that could look in all directions at once using four lenses. With this directive, we began to explore visualizations of how this camera could look.

A theme started to emerge; we began to experiment with a spherical design that resembled a ball, or a bubble captured from the air, giving you a panoramic view of wherever you were — YOUR LIFE IN A BUBBLE, in other wordsIt was an obvious breakthrough, and once we had that vision, we were able to build a product and business model around the story it told.

When it first hit the market, there was nothing else like it. Now in 2017, do a search on 360 cameras, and you will see all of the derivative designs by other companies who followed our design language.

Your team is liable to get stuck, or even disagree on design decisions along the way. If you’re there, try returning to the guiding principle: What’s best for the user?

How do you know when you’re done? This, of course, is a tough one. For one, there’s real logistical constraints like timelines and budget that will carry you to the home stretch of your design process. But eventually, the curtain must rise and it’s show time. While the cycle of optimization is so critical, we can’t let perfection become the enemy of completion.

Want to learn more about how we avoid design failure? Check out our e-book: How to Make Profitable Products or read about how we used ethnography to pivot the direction of Deloitte’s project to resonate with their end users.

© 2022 Cortex Design Inc.