It doesn’t matter if you’re self employed, freelancer or if you work for a company, it is always important to stay professional and have awareness of what can go wrong in order to avoid negative impact on your career or business.
Here is the list of 7 most common bad business habits.
If you’re procrastinating, stop! It is the worst thing you can do. Plan your work, make reminders, set up an alarm clock, do whatever you need to do to not procrastinate. Emails will keep coming, blogs will keep updating, friends will keep calling. The important part is to organize your activities so that they don’t put your work on hold.
If you want to kill your business, being lazy is the way to do it. It is one of the worst habits out there. It will affect your desire to work, which will make you put off deadlines, which will affect the quality of your work, which will make your clients leave you.
3. Not caring
If you want to be successful, it is important to be enthusiastic. If you don’t like what you do, it’s probably time to think about a career change.
4. Poor people skills
Another crucial quality is to have people skills. Completing the project on time is not everything there is to a successful business. Let’s face it a smile on the face, or making small talk don’t require too much effort, but it might make someone’s day. We need to remember that we work with people and not robots.
5. Being rude
Now this one goes right along with people skills. It is understandable that you probably think that everyone cares about the fact that you are having a bad day. News flash, nobody does. Clients come to you for quality service, not attitude.
Yes, sometimes we get difficult clients, but it is still our job to stay professional and handle them well.
6. Neglecting mistakes
We are all human beings and we can all make mistakes, and it’s ok. However, it is important to identify the root of the cause. If you lost a client, find out the reasons behind it, if you got a complaint make sure you do everything possible to not make the same mistake again.
7. Ignoring reviews
Most people like to get reviews before they buy something which reveals information about you, your company and the quality of the work that you provide. Having a bad reputation means losing over 50% of your clients. Make sure you always stay on top of what other people say about your business.
Chances are we all make these mistakes sometimes, the key is to acknowledge it and take the necessary precautions. If you have any examples, or just feel like sharing your thoughts, please comment.
Being a successful entrepreneur means you have to wear a lot of hats, especially when your company is just starting out and you don’t have enough employees to cover all the areas you need.
Learning the new skills necessary to start a new business can be expensive, but fortunately the initiative for free, high-quality, educational resources online has only continued to grow in the past few years. Below are some of the resources available to learn more about marketing, entrepreneurship, business management and more.
2. HubSpot Academy
The free certification program offers courses on inbound marketing, including website optimization, landing pages and lead nurturing. These skills are a must for business owners as they try to grow their business and online presence.
If you want to learn search-engine optimization to make sure your website is as visible as possible, check out this treasure trove of resources from SEO leader, Moz. Besides having the free Moz Academy, there are also webinars (live and recorded), and beginner’s guides to SEO, social media and link building.
The most successful entrepreneurs know how to manage their money both on a business and personal side. In addition to having extremely affordable finance classes, LearnVest also offers some of its classes for free, such as “Building Better Money Habits” and “How to Budget.”
5. Niche consultant courses
The Internet has made for a coaching boom, which is extremely helpful to entrepreneurs who want to learn how to start or better a business in a specific niche. Some great coaches and organizations that routinely have free courses and ebooks on building a business include Natalie MacNeil and MyOwnBusiness. Try searching “niche keyword” + “business course” to find one most applicable to you.
This free site currently has over 300 courses on a variety of topics, including “Financial Analysis and Decision Making” and “Entrepreneurship 101: Who is your customer?” These courses not only cover business in general, but can also you help learn more skills that are applicable to your industry, such as big data or environmental conservation.
7. Khan Academy
This free learning resource was created to give everyone access to education in math, science, art, technology and more. There are over 100,000 interactive exercises to put your education to practical use. Even though many of the courses are geared toward high school students, there are several courses that would be good for anyone to have a refresher on, such as taxes and accounting.
8. MIT Open Courseware
These are actual courses taught at MIT and offered for free on the site for viewing and reading at your discretion. The school put together an entrepreneurship page that lists available courses that are beneficial to new business owners. Courses include “Early State Capital” and “The Software Business.”
9. Kutztown University of Pennsylvania
This university has almost 100 free on-demand college courses that are extremely applicable to entrepreneurs, including ones that cover business planning, operations and management and small-business tax.
Much like MIT’s Open Courseware, this site has 114 educational partners that provide free courses to almost 10 million users. One benefit to Coursera is that there are very specific courses that fit perfectly into particular niches, such as “Data Management for Clinical Research” from Vanderbilt University and “Innovation for Entrepreneurs: From Idea to Marketplace” from the University of Maryland. Its wide network of partners allows for a greater selection.
This site isn’t an educational platform on its own, but rather collects and shares free resources from around the web. Its list of 150 free online business courses is a great resource because it offers classes from iTunes U and other lessons on video and audio. The site also has lists of free audiobooks, certificate courses and other online courses.
It’s probably unsurprising to most users that YouTube is one of the world’s largest search engines, as there are literally videos on just about anything you can imagine. From TED talks to recorded presentations on building a business, it’s a great free resource on just about any topic.
This platform offers free online courses from some of the most well-known names on the internet today, including Google, Microsoft, and Macmillan. With over 4 million users and over 600 courses already, it covers topics such as economic literacy, personal development and business/enterprise skills.
The Saylor Foundation offers tuition-free courses and also works with accredited colleges and universities to offer affordable credentials. Its course offerings are similar to what you’d see when working toward a bachelor’s degree.
Even though it’s not an official course, podcasts are an amazing (and easily digestible) way to become a better entrepreneur. Podcasts can be listened to via streaming on your computer (if that certain podcast offers it) or via iTunes for iOS and apps such as Podcast Republic for Android. Podcasts such as Entrepreneur of Fire already garner thousands of listeners every episode and are a great way to learn the most up-to-date information and strategies possible. Another good list of entrepreneur podcasts include Think Entrepreneurship’s.
Whether you learn best by audio, video or text, this list of 15 learning resources for entrepreneurs can help you learn more about building a business, accounting and getting customers.
Do you have a favorite resource not listed here? Let us know in the comments section below.
Claudio Guglieri walks you through the process of designing a website layout from start to finish.
When approaching the topic of designing a website layout, I thought about common mistakes I have seen in my years designing, especially with interns and new designers fresh from web design training.
Within this short list of steps to the perfect website layout, I aim to cover what I believe every new website builder working within a digital agency should know and do before starting a new project, and what they should pay attention to during the process.
These principles cover not only design aspects such as landing page design but also general workflow issues that will get the job nicely done. Follow them and you’ll soon be on your way to creating professional website layouts.
01. Put your thoughts on paper first
This seems very obvious but I’ve found too often that designers jump straight into Photoshop before giving any thought to the problem they are trying to solve. Design is about solving problems and those problems can’t be resolved through gradients or shadows but through a good layout and a clear hierarchy. Think about the content, the layout and the functionality before starting to drop shadows.
02. Start sketching a top level framework
When I’m asked to create a look and feel for a project, the first thing I do is come-up with a top level framework that solves all the design problems. The framework is the UI that surrounds the content and helps to perform actions and navigate through it. It includes the navigation and components like sidebars and bottom bars.
If you approach your design from this perspective you will have a clear understanding of what your layout needs will be when designing sections beyond the homepage.
03. Add a grid to your PSD
It’s as simple as it sounds. Before starting to design anything in Photoshop you need a proper grid to start with. There are no valid excuses for starting without a grid, and yes if you don’t, I can assure in one way or another, the design won’t look as good.
A grid will help you to structure the layout of the different sections; it will guide you through the specific screen size requirements, and help you to create responsive templates, to be consistent in terms of spacing as well as many other design issues.
04. Choose your typography
Exploring different typefaces and colours is part of the discovery phase of a project. I would recommend not using more than two different typefaces in a website but it really depends on its nature you could use more or less. Overall choose a font that is easy to read for long amount of text and be more playful with titles and call to actions. Don’t be afraid of using big fonts and overall be playful and consistent when using typography.
05. Select your colour theme
Throughout the process of choosing a set of typefaces to use you should start exploring what colours you will use in the UI, backgrounds, and text. In terms of colours I recommend using a limited set of colours and tones for the general user interface.
It’s important to apply those consistently across the UI depending on the element’s functionality. Think about the layout of sites like Facebook, Twitter, Quora, and Vimeo. Besides the UI there shouldn’t be any colour restriction for illustrations or graphic details as long as they don’t interfere with the functionality of the components.
06. Divide the layout
Each section in your site needs to tell a story. It needs a reason and a final outcome for the user. The layout needs to help the content highlighting what are the most important pieces in that story. In reality there shouldn’t be too many call outs on a page so everything should drive to that final “What can I do here”.
Think about the most simple layout you can imagine for a simple purpose and start adding components that are necessary. At the end you’ll be surprise how hard is to keep it simple.
07. Rethink the established
As designers we shape the way users browse the internet, it’s up to us to decide how many steps a simple action will take and how efficient our site will be. Design patterns and conventions are there because they work but sometimes they are there because no one spent enough time evaluating them or rethinking them. It’s important to rethink the established interactive patterns on any component and to see how we can improve them.
08. Challenge yourself
I encourage every designer out there to challenge themselves on every project. Innovation doesn’t always come as a requirement for the project so it’s up to us to come up with something interaction or design related. Examples of different challenges could include using a new grid system, creating a new component, or even minor challenges like avoiding blend modes or using a specific colour.
09. Pay attention to the details
This statement has been overused lately but it’s not always visible in the final product. Depending on the concept behind the project, that “love” could come in different ways.
It could be a small interaction, an unexpected animation or an aesthetic touch like a little gradient in a button or a subtle stroke around a box in the background. But overall this touch is essential and also natural if you really enjoy what you do.
10. Treat every component as if it could be presented to a design contest
I have to admit that this piece of advice is not mine. I heard it in the past at Fantasy Interactive and I was shocked by how clear and true this statement was. Each component needs to be designed as it could stand alone as the best component ever. Sometimes designers leave some parts of a site last on their to-do list and show little respect to them at the end.
11. Sharpen your work
Besides any aesthetic consideration there are some common things that have to be avoided in order to create a clean and correct piece of work. Some things you should be on the lookout for when trying to sharpen your work should include gradients banding, blurry edges, font rendering options (some fonts depending on their size are best viewed on a specific render mode), and strokes that merge badly with the background.
These are just few basic examples of issues to look for but in reality the list is endless. Always look at your design as a whole to see if everything works well and then analyze each component individually more carefully.
12. Tidy up your PSDs
This is (along with the use of a grid) one of the most important pieces of advice when designing with Photoshop. Despite the size of the project and the number of designers working on it, you need to keep your files clean. This will make it easier to export different sections, to speed-up the design process and to work with shared files with other designers.
13. Design the best case scenario but prepare for the worst
As designers our job is to solve problems through different constraints. With web design, the constraints range from conceptual and technical issues to content related issues.
We need to build a site that can work not only in the ideal scenario, but also in the worst-case scenario. For instance a user could be using a really small screen and check the site when there is barely any content on it so it looks broken.
However for the purpose of presenting our work I always strongly recommend building the best case scenario for it. Therefore we are going to display the ideal amount of text and we are going to show the site inside the ideal browser size that should be the most common scenario for most users using it.
14. Obsess over the design until you hate it
If you are passionate about design I’m sure this is something you are already doing. Whenever I finish a comp I feel proud of, I tend to make that comp a part of my life. I take screenshots of it, check it out it different devices, make wallpapers of it and even print it and hang it on the wall.
Throughout this process I get to a point where I finally end up hating it; I start seeing everything that’s wrong with it and eventually I change it. Disliking your previous work is sign of maturity, and it means that you are finally learning from your own mistakes.
15. Avoid spending too much time on a concept before sharing it with the client
When proposing an interactive concept or a design ‘look and feel’, you need to ensure that you and the client are both on the same page as soon as possible. Once that happens and the initial concept is approved you can relax a little bit and start production.
But if after presenting the first concept and the client doesn’t fall in love with it, you should gather enough feedback to bring a second more appropriate concept to the table.
16. Be your developer’s best friend
Developers are creative people and they love their jobs as much as you do. But they are not always included in a project from the very beginning and often times only get involved when the concept is decided and their creative role has been overridden. This process is wrong; some of the best ideas come from the development team, so make sure you team up with them from the very beginning of the project. Sharing your concepts and excitement with them will lead to better ideas and a better execution in the end.
17. Presentations: explain it to me like I’m a four-year-old
It’s just as important to produce great work as it is to present it. Your best design can be ignored or thrown away if you don’t present it properly. Always keep in mind that what is totally clear to you might not be that clear to somebody seeing your design for the first time.
18. Love each of your ideas but don’t get too attached to them
There is a thin line between knowing when to advocate for your ideas and learning to realise when your team or client doesn’t see them as ‘the one’. As a designer you need to believe firmly in what you do, but you should also be open to quickly turning over that idea and coming up with something else. Don’t forget that there is more than one unique solution.
19. Track down your design during the development process
If you work inside an agency you might have realised how easy it is to find yourself struggling with the design of a new project when the previous one you just finished is being developed. Contrary to general belief, your work on a project doesn’t end when the PSD and styles- sheet are delivered.
If you really care about your designs and interaction ideas being well executed, check in on your old best friends the developers from time to time and help them as much as they need to ensure that everything little pixel is perfect.
20. Show your work in progress
As part of a community of designers, we all love to see not just the final results but also the work in progress. Sometimes the best part of a project is left out for several reasons and gets lost in your Archive folder. Once the project is done and you get the approval from the client/producer promote it and if possible create a case study with the work in progress and designs that didn’t make it to the final release. You will be helping by contributing to the community’s knowledge and you will get valuable feedback in return.
Might some of the same rules that make for a good marriage make for a great creative partnership? Short answer: yes.
More than half of American marriages end in divorce. We can only imagine that the stats are similar for new businesses, where partners often spend more time together than with their spouses.
What, then, can you do to make sure your partnership odds are better than those forged at the altar?
Ken Carbone and Leslie Smolan of the design firm CarboneSmolan, one of the few unmarried male-female creative teams in the industry, have slogged through all the ups and downs of a 35-year partnership–the good years and the lean ones, clients won and lost, big fights, long nights, and tectonic changes in their industry–and emerged still happily finishing each others’ sentences.
They recently celebrated more than three decades in the business together with a new book, “Dialog,” that chronicles that felicitous run, during which they’ve created award-winning work for clients ranging from Morgan Stanley to the Louvre, Dansk to the San Francisco Airport.
During that time, they’ve hammered out a handful of principles for keeping your creative partnership alive and healthy. No surprise that these rules would make as much sense at home as they do in the office.
1. Make Creative Friction Work.
“In the early years, there were loud disagreements,” Smolan confesses. “We’re both passionate and strong-willed, and happy to stand up for ideas we think are right.”
Eventually, she says, the two realized that their debate, while occasionally disconcerting, inevitably led to a better result. “We had an epiphany: We generally had the same goal, just two different paths for getting there.”
While they refuse to compromise just to keep the peace, they generally agree that whoever cares the most generally wins. “When you trust the other person aesthetically, you let go,” saysSmolan.Still, they have strict rules about keeping conflict in its rightful place. “Creative friction in front of a client is bad,” Carbone says. “It gives them an opening. And we try not to fight in front of employees. It’s like, ‘Whoa, there go Mom and Dad fighting again!’” Plus, like any long-standing couple they have one inviolable rule: Don’t go to sleep mad.
2. Tag Team Your Business.
“We recognize each other’s strengths and weaknesses,” Carbone says. “In the beginning there was much more territorial feuding–over finances, office space, etc.–but now I know what I don’t know, and what Leslie does better than I do.”
The result, the two say, is a neat division of labor. Smolan handles the finances, Carbone the firm’s marketing. Smolan likes to push clients toward the far reaches of their horizon for innovation; Carbone makes sure that what they propose is within the CEO’s comfort zone.
They understand each other well enough to know which clients will respond best to which partner. “By the time we hit the ground in the elevator, we know who will be the primary lead on the business,” Smolan says.
3. Don’t Keep Score.
“We’re champions of the ‘We’” Carbone says. “I never say, ‘I did this logo.’ It’s part of the fabric of the partnership.”
This is not to say that the division of labor is always 50/50. But nobody’s calculating who brought in the most business, or who’s working harder.
“Sometimes Leslie’s side of the business is much more profitable than mine,” Carbone says. “She never says, ‘What did you do this year?’”
“We all have ups and downs,” Smolan says. “And we have different ways of contributing. It’s never about the money.”
4. Be Your Partner’s Biggest Fan.
The biggest trick of a good partnership, both say, is to pick somebody of enormous talent and stick with him or her.
“To this day, I think Ken is the best designer I know,” Smolan says. “Ken’s a great draftsman, so the first thing I do when we have visitors is bring them to Ken’s office to show off his drawing and journals. Nothing makes me happier than to talk about this other person as my other half.”
For his part, Carbone makes sure that clients don’t ignore the woman in the room. “If someone is paying too much attention to me, and the project is better for Leslie, I make sure she’s the shining star.”
Happily, their spouses also get along. “Somehow, the four of us are like The Honeymooners,” Smolan says. “There’s never an edge of jealousy or envy.”
5. Stay Off Balance.
After 35 years of success, you’d think you could finally coast a little. Bad idea, both in a partnership and in a marriage, the two say.
Framed above a doorway in their office is a sign that Carbone found in a fortune cookie: “The road to success is always under construction.” It is, they say, their firm’s mantra. “If you stay the same, you’ll die,” Carbone says. “Granted it’s exhausting, but staying off balance builds different muscles.”
The two have recently added a younger partner, Paul Pierson, who brings the firm a fresher perspective on technology and speed. “Right now, a good 70-75% of our business is Web-focused,” Carbone says. “It wasn’t that way as recently as 18 months ago. If we don’t recognize this business five years from now, it will be our greatest success,” he says. “With a mature business, staying off balance is critical.”
“Either that, or we’re just masochistic, “ Smolan chimes in.
Victor Lombardi explains what experience designers can learn from past failures.
This is an edited excerpt from Chapter 1 of Why We Fail, published by Rosenfeld Media. Use the discount code creativebloqto buy the book at a 20 per cent discounthere
“Ultimately, we are deluding ourselves if we think that the products that we design are the ‘things’ that we sell, rather than the individual, social and cultural experience that they engender, and the value and impact that they have. Design that ignores this is not worthy of the name.”
– Bill Buxton, computer scientist, designer, and a pioneer of the human–computer interaction field
Why I failed
The year was 2000 and I was employed at a prestigious digital design agency working with a financial information company to create a new website that would revolutionize the research process for institutional investors, the people who manage investments for large companies and municipalities
“Make it like a Bloomberg Terminal,” is how the client summed it up. My team of designers and programmers winced at his suggestion because we considered the Bloomberg Terminal a powerful but ugly and difficult-to-learn interface design from the dark ages of text-based computers (Figure 1.1). We instead pushed him in the direction of beautiful charts and graphs, software agents that personalized information, and conventional web navigation that would be familiar to his clients.
Our client hadn’t actually done any research with his customers to understand if they would like his ideas. And neither had we. He was leaning on his expertise in managing similar products and we were leaning on our experience having designed similar products, but neither of us had validated these particular ideas with these particular customers. At the time, the methods we had for validating our ideas were not compellingly useful, and perhaps my team and the client implicitly understood this. We made minimal effort to conduct research with the client’s customers, and he denied us access to them.
With each stage of the project the design and technology accumulated more flaws. When the client decided the team was wrong for the job, another team at my agency replaced us. After more missteps the client’s upper management replaced their team. Eventually the whole project was canceled; the client’s company decided to use off-the-shelf software instead, which was never a success with its customers. In the end the project was a failure, all too common in the early days of the web.
The blame game
Ouch. I was a young designer and had never experienced a big failure at work. I felt terrible. No one at our agency wanted to focus on the failures and take time to discuss them, so the team never understood why we failed. Without a good explanation and without something tangible I could do to improve, I sometimes felt depressed and I lost confidence in my skills. Sometimes I became defensive and blamed the ‘dumb client’.
But I saw that things around me were even worse: clients were firing agencies after as little as a month or clients were suing agencies. Some of the mistakes agencies were making were to be expected. The Internet represented a new world of design and technology that changed on a daily basis. Everyone was learning and experimenting; there were no experts.
Since the time of that first early failure, I’ve contributed to or directly managed over 40 internet and software projects, some as a designer and some as a product manager. There have been other failures, and even when I understand why I failed it still takes an emotional toll. In spite of my own failures, you’ll see as you read this book that I’m often a harsh critic of my peers’ work. I don’t criticize because I think leading a design project from start to finish is easy. It’s not. It’s hard work. I criticize the outcomes I see because it’s hard work and because failure is still too common. I want all of us to get it right more often, with less of the emotional toll of failure. I hope by reading this book and applying the lessons learned, avoiding failure will be easier for you and those you work with.
I failed mostly because I didn’t have the right methods to discover which of our ideas would give customers an experience they wanted. Since then, those methods have improved significantly.
Why this stuff is really important
I see the trend of our work going beyond the ubiquitous convenience it is today and becoming a vital part of the infrastructure supporting life in the 21st century. Currently most of our work complements or enhances life; people don’t rely on it as essential yet. An updated status on Facebook, an e-mail to a friend, accessing information on websites… if all this were turned off tomorrow people would feel inconvenienced, but they could find work-arounds for all of it.
But that’s changing rapidly. I now make appointments with my doctor online, and the doctor transmits my prescription for medicine directly to my pharmacist online (Figure 1.2). I pay the doctor, the pharmacist, and the health insurance online. As people become accustomed to this way of working – and as service providers become accustomed to the efficiency, accuracy, and cost savings – the old ways will gradually be discontinued. Increasingly, we will rely on digital products and services for everyday matters of life and death.
We are each the product of our experience. The things we do, the places we go, the people we meet, and the things we use all influence who we are. Over time, as we interact with more and more technology to live our lives, we will spend more of our time looking at screens, and the quality of the design of this technology will have ever greater influence on the quality of our lives.
Why we learn from failure
Instead of studying failures, can’t we just study successes and then repeat whatever led to those successes? Yes, this is a good tactic in very simple situations, such as learning how to tie your shoes. There’s not much to be gained by looking at how many ways it’s possible to tie your shoes incorrectly. If you fail, nothing terrible happens.
Any industry that’s important, complex, and dynamic takes the time to examine failures. Aviation, medicine, and manufacturing are three fields that have taught us an enormous number of lessons by studying failures.
Here’s a good example. During World War II a mathematician in the United States named Abraham Wald worked on the problem of deciding where to add additional armor to B-29 bomber planes to keep them from getting shot down. Looking at planes that had successfully returned from flying missions, he determined statistically where the bullets had hit the planes and plotted the locations, as represented schematically in Figure 1.3.
The initial reaction to this data might be, “We need to add additional armor to the dark areas because that’s where the bullets are hitting the planes.” Wald’s insight was that the planes with bullet holes in the dark areas returned successfully, so perhaps the planes that did not return were shot down because they had bullet holes in the light areas. His recommendation was to add armor to the light areas instead.
As a statistician, Wald would naturally want to make a decision based on a random sample of all planes, but he didn’t have access to the planes that were shot down. He understood the limitation of his sample and adjusted for it. He successfully dodged survivorship bias, the mistake of learning only from the survivors of some process.
Survivorship bias happens all the time. Witness the marketing hype in our industry that, devoid of research, hails every new method and technology as the fix for people’s business or personal needs. It seems easier to research and analyze companies and products that currently exist instead of searching for information on companies and products that have perished. Doing so can lead us to believe that the survivors have some special quality that helps them survive, when it’s possible they were just lucky (Figure 1.4).
The lesson here is very simple: to increase your chances of success and lower your chances of failure, you need to carefully examine cases of both success and failure.
Why experience failure is different
So we know why studying failure is important, but do we really need another book on failed products? Yes we do, because previous books were about design rather than experience.
To help illustrate the difference, I’ll group the many design-related failures into three broad categories:
Engineering failure: The product physically fails to function as designed.
Design failure: The product physically works, but is so badly designed people can’t use it.
Experience failure: The product physically works and people can use it, but using it is an undesirable experience.
For engineering failure, we have great studies of how and why things fail in physical ways, most notably Henry Petroski’s studies of buildings, bridges, and pyramids, as in his book Success through Failure: The Paradox of Design. But studying a bridge that failed is worlds apart from studying a failed website. When people use bridges, they don’t directly interact with them the same way they interact with digital products. For example, a sleeping passenger in a car can pass over a bridge without even knowing it, whereas people actively and directly interact with digital products (Figure 1.5). I’ve never heard of a bridge that was torn down and replaced because people didn’t like it much. But in this age of plentiful digital products, people have enough options to be selective about what they use.
In the second case, design failure, the product physically works but its design makes it too hard to use. We used to call this ‘human error’ but the more common term in the fields of ergonomics and human factors is now ‘design-induced error’, which moves the blame from the people using the product to the people who designed it. Whenever you’re using any kind of computer and feel confused about how to use it correctly, you’re experiencing design-induced error. Many of us are old enough to remember trying in vain to set the digital clock on our VCRs. This is a classic example of a design-induced problem (Figure 1.6).
Having a product break and feeling confused by a design are definitely things people still experience, but interactive digital products are more sophisticated now. They do more than just perform simple functions like recording a TV show at a particular time. They connect us socially, they allow us to shop and conduct business from home, and they smooth a million transactions from navigating a car to finding a book at the library. Mere usability is a low bar for these products to clear; they now aim much higher, engaging our higher-level functions and sometimes even engaging us emotionally.
While the concept of design-induced error is a useful subset of failure I’ll look at in this book, experience failure comprises much more.
In this book I will talk about design – the appearance and behavior of a product – separately from the experience – people’s thoughts, feelings, and actions while using the product. I illustrate this distinction explicitly in Chapter 8 of my book with the case of Nokia’s Symbian S60 mobile phone operating system. The Symbian-based phones had a long list of features and high-performance specifications that sounded great on paper, but the iPhone and Android phones offered a more pleasing experience, despite having far fewer features. With the first iPhone you couldn’t even spell-check your e-mail or customize your ringtone, and yet it sold very well. Consumer electronics have now reached a performance threshold where more features and performance offer diminishing returns unless the design helps people have a good experience.
One observer has called this “the death of the spec”, meaning
the list of specifications is no longer as important as the experience. This phrase was coined as a result of ‘Antennagate’, the controversy over the signal reception of Apple’s iPhone 4 in July 2010. Consumer Reports magazine evaluated the phone and found that holding it a certain way would significantly reduce the signal strength, a potentially fatal flaw for a mobile phone. The magazine, usually content to simply publish ratings and move on, went further and issued several news updates, even calling on Apple to fix the problem (Figure 1.7).
You might assume with all the publicity about a fundamental flaw in the iPhone 4 that sales would plummet. For the fiscal quarter ending September 25, 2010, Apple sold 14.1 million iPhones, which was 91 per cent more iPhones than the same quarter from the previous year. Apparently people who wanted the iPhone 4 decided to buy it against the advice of independent product experts. This massive contrast between the publicity of the defect and the record sales numbers served to highlight the death of the spec of interactive digital products.
Marco Arment, a software developer and technology writer, offered this explanation for the situation: “For [Consumer Reports’] ratings to be useful to my purchase, their priorities and criteria need to approximately match mine. This is easy for most of the products they review: […] an air conditioner that uses less energy for the same cooling is better than a less efficient model. You can assign numbers and scores to factors like these.
“Smartphones have too many subjective criteria, and even the measurable stats don’t always yield a definite answer on what’s better. If you want a huge screen, you’ll get a huge phone, so is a larger screen size a good thing or not? Fast 4G network access kills battery life, so is 4G a good feature for you? These all depend on your priorities.
“A product as complex and multifaceted as a modern smartphone is beyond Consumer Reports’ ability to rate in a way that’s useful to most buyers.”
Subjective is the word that stands out for me here. While the qualities of a design can be objectively described on a list of specifications, the qualities of people’s experience – their thoughts and feelings about a complex, multifaceted product – are subjective.
And that’s one thing about designing digital products these days that is different and, I think, trickier. We just don’t know if they work or not until we evaluate the subjective experience of the people using them. Sure, we can check if the products function correctly and ask independent experts to review them. But the products we’re now making are experiential products, and only the people experiencing them know if they are ultimately successful or not (Figure 1.8).
Why design equals experience
To fully understand the failures cited in my book, I describe both the product design and the outcome of that design – the experience. Ultimately it is in the experience that these products fail, but by presenting both the design and the experience I hope to illuminate the difference and help you completely appreciate the lessons learned.
Even though I’ve been working in the ‘experience design’ industry for years, this design/experience dichotomy hasn’t been easy for me to arrive at. Because we so often use the word ‘experience’ to describe the design, it takes some conceptual backflips to think about a person’s experience apart from the product.
To help you see the difference between design and experience here are two automotive examples. I like taking examples from the automotive world because most people are familiar with cars. Figure 1.9 is a video describing the design of a new concept car. The reporter discusses the styling, the price, and the business issues at the automaker, but not the experience of what it’s like to drive the vehicle. This is only a concept vehicle and the reporter didn’t have access to a working prototype.
Contrast that with the video of an off-road rally car driver taking a passenger for a short ride (Figure 1.10). We don’t know where they are, who they are, or how fast they’re going. We don’t know anything about the design of the car other than the little we can see in the blurry video. But we know the woman in the passenger seat is ecstatic, smiling throughout the entire four-minute ride, laughing and uttering curses as she’s bumped and tossed around. That’s experience.
Here’s a parallel example relevant to software. Figure 1.11 is a video I made highlighting an interesting design aspect of Microsoft Office 2007. It’s all about design and not at all about experience.
Next is a video compilation of disabled people interacting with Drupal websites (Figure 1.12). We can’t tell much about the design of the websites from the video, but we get to see people’s reactions as they use the sites and later reflect on the experience.
This focus on experience isn’t new, but only recently has it started to become more widespread as a concept. The seminal work on experience as an economic force is The Experience Economy by Joseph Pine II and James H Gilmore, first published in 1999. They observed that “companies stage an experience whenever they engage customers, connecting with them in a personal, memorable way.” They argue that experiences are an economic force just like commodities, goods, and services, which can be intentionally produced, consumed, and measured.
One reason for isolating experiences is that they are profitable. For example, Pine and Gilmore show how the profit margin for coffee increases along a value chain. The raw beans to make a cup of coffee (a commodity) cost 1 or 2 cents, but when a manufacturer roasts, grinds, and packages the coffee for sale (a good) the price to a consumer increases to as much as 25 cents. A brewed cup of coffee at a quick service restaurant (a service) can increase the value to between 50 cents and a dollar. Starbucks deliberately aims for a highly engaging experience – by preparing special beverages and serving them in an environment enhanced with interior design, music, and Internet access – and receives $2 to $5 for a cup of coffee.
Compared with commodities, goods, and services, the consumer price index shows that people are paying increasingly more for experiences. Experiences also show a faster rate of growth when contributing to both employment and gross domestic product (GDP).
As competition in various industries increases, companies sometimes try to move up this value chain, turning their commodities, goods, and services into experiences and seeking higher profit margins. For example,
“Glimcher Realty Trust, which owns and manages shopping malls, is experimenting with making them Internet-proof. The company concedes that if shoppers can buy something online, they will. So it is trying to fill one of its malls, in Scottsdale, Ariz., with businesses that do more than sell stuff.
“There are still clothing-only retailers at the mall, Scottsdale Quarter, but more than half of the stores offer dining or some other experience that cannot be easily replicated on the Web. That has glimcher executives taking some unconventional approaches to finding suitable tenants—like testing out laser salons, getting hairstyling lessons, and watching movies in a theater that serves food.
“‘It’s retail Darwinism,’ Mr. Glimcher said.”
Nathan Shedroff’s book Experience Design is the seminal introduction to the design of digital, experiential products. First published in 2001, the touchstone work ranges broadly from interaction design to designing for the senses. Here’s how Shedroff describes the state of the field:
“The design of experiences isn’t any newer than the recognition of experiences. As an approach, though, experience Design is still in its infancy. Simultaneously having no history (since it has, still, only recently been defined), and the longest history (since it is the culmination of many, ancient disciplines), experience Design has become newly recognized and named. However, it is really the combination of many previous disciplines; but never before have these disciplines been so interrelated, nor have the possibilities for integrating them into whole solutions been so great.”
Both The Experience Economy and Experience Design argue that a product or service is designed, sold, and used differently than an experience.
One reason we can turn our attention to our audience’s experience is that we’re less challenged to design technology to satisfy basic functions. Before, we had to work hard to design interfaces that could compensate for performance shortcomings, whereas now we sometimes have more computing speed, communications bandwidth, and storage than we generally require. The experiential threshold is crossed when technology reaches a point of sophistication where product design can engage people’s emotions.
A recent example is the portable music player. In the 1980s portable cassette players like the Walkman let people take their music with them, but the devices themselves didn’t engage their emotions (Figure 1.13).
In the 2000s digital music players transformed that experience by storing people’s entire music collection in their pockets and adding interactive screens, especially touchscreens (Figure 1.14). Suddenly the range of interactions increased dramatically. Sliding a finger on a screen allows an infinite number of input possibilities, and the devices can use graphics and sound to communicate back to the user, becoming so much more than just music players.
This concept of the experiential threshold is gradually permeating the technology media. For example when Microsoft released its Windows Surface tablets in June 2012, Darren Murph at Engadget wrote:
“Microsoft’s playing coy when it comes to both CPU speed and available memory. Not unlike Apple and its iPad, actually. We’re guessing that the company will try to push the user experience instead of focusing on pure specifications, and it’s frankly about time the industry started moving in that direction. Pure hardware attributes only get you so far, and judging by the amount of integration time that went into this project, Microsoft would be doing itself a huge disservice to launch anything even close to not smooth-as-butter.”
Because people relate to experiential products differently, each product fails differently. It might fail because we feel overwhelmed (Google Wave) or underwhelmed (Microsoft Zune). We might feel cheated (Classmates.com) or annoyed (Plaxo). We might feel frustrated (OpenID) or maddened (BMW iDrive). We might become enlightened to a need we didn’t know we had, and then realize that another, different product would actually satisfy this need better (Pownce, Wesabe).
Why you should keep reading
What all the stories in my book have in common is that the products somehow failed to offer their audience a good experience. As a result the product either failed in the marketplace (e.g. Symbian) or the company was forced to change the product to offer a better experience in order to survive in the marketplace (e.g. Plaxo). The stories are sometimes sad, sometimes surprising, and sometimes enraging. But each one taught me something valuable about how to do my work, and I hope they will do the same for you.
I limited the case studies in this book to digital products, in particular software and consumer electronics. All the products examined here tried to innovate in one way or another before failing. There are certainly examples of failed products that attempted to copy others or simply to make incremental improvements over what came previously, but those cases aren’t as interesting or instructive. I also excluded products that failed merely because the creators were incompetent or the lessons are outdated or irrelevant.
My key message in this book is this: experience design is an incredibly young field and we have much to learn about how people experience our products. However, there has been work over the past decades to address the challenges faced in this book, and the lessons others have learned can help us avoid failure.
Words: Victor Lombardi
This is an edited excerpt from Chapter 1 of Why We Fail, published by Rosenfeld Media.