In the halls of business schools and C-suite offices, many have asked an important question: “Why do products fail?” There’s nothing wrong with this kind of soul-searching, of course; in fact, it’s vital if we’re serious about getting better returns for our research and development dollars. I sometimes wonder whether the people asking themselves this question are brave enough to look into the mirror.
The answer could be staring right back at them. Most of the time, products don’t fail from bad ideas. They fail because of someone’s arrogance. Engineers, designers, and even executives sometimes fool themselves into thinking they know all the answers. It’s a complex message to deliver, but until we come to terms with this truth, we’re at risk of continuing to waste precious resources.
It’s not hard to find examples. One that comes to mind is the story behind Maxwell House Ready-to-Drink coffee, which quickly came and left the scene in early 1990. As the story goes, the makers of Maxwell House were looking for the “next big thing” in coffee in the age of the automatic coffeemaker. These were the days before Starbucks, Keurig, and other disrupters helped turn coffee into a status item.
The vision called for selling Maxwell House Ready-to-Drink coffee cartons to consumers in the local supermarket, making coffee as easy to drink as a glass of milk—just heat and drink.
However, one problem: the cartons could not be put in the microwave. So, in the end, the user would still have to pour the coffee into a cup and then heat it, an experience indistinguishable from triggering an automatic coffeemaker to percolate.
There were also other errors, such as adorning the cartons with an image of a steaming hot cup of coffee but placing it in the cooler aisle near the milk. The disconnect was too much, and Ready-to-Drink coffee quickly bombed.
Thinking “we know better,” rather than trusting the genuine insights of authentic and diverse users from carefully designed user research and experience, is the biggest enemy of product success. Don’t fall for the voice that says, “If you build it, they will come.” The truth is, if you build, it’s bad; they will not come back!
When negatives are positives
After arrogance, there is fear. Sometimes, company leaders revert to their own intuition out of fear. They are scared of what users might say during UX research and design. They don’t want negative feedback to interfere with their carefully envisioned path to market, so they avoid asking the questions.
However, I teach my students that we should consider feedback, especially negative feedback, as a gift. If you do not open yourself up to hearing the negatives and discovering the weaknesses in your plan, you can be sure that your competition will. In your defensiveness, you become more, not less, vulnerable.
Don’t fear negative feedback. Consider it an opportunity to ask the most important UX research and design question: “Why?” The classic example lies in the way Uber disrupted the taxi profession. Everyone knew what was wrong with the taxi experience; it took Uber to step up and say, “We can fix that.”
Before Uber, there was Netflix. The founders knew where the weaknesses lay in the Blockbuster experience, and they built their company around solving those problems. Competitors will start their journeys at your weakest point.
The lesson for UX research and design professionals: Seek out and embrace those people who don’t like your product. Then, try to explain why those people feel that way. Only good UX research and design can give you this answer, your gut alone cannot.
The temptation to cut corners
Practical considerations also play a role, as they would with any significant investment. The challenge of allocating scarce budget dollars is steep, and sometimes executives convince themselves they can get to their desired destination by skipping steps along the way.
For instance, one common fallacy is when product teams convince themselves they can use the launch period as the initial user test, thinking that feedback from early adopters can be quickly filtered back into the process.
This weakens the product launch concept, turning it into a glorified A/B test and introducing a chaotic rush to implement fixes without time to validate them properly. Doing so squanders an essential chance for your team to build momentum in the marketplace.
Instead, opt for the preventive medicine of proper UX research and design protocol with the budget to support it properly. Focus on obtaining honest, validated feedback from users early and often.
No one relishes failure, and even constructive criticism doesn’t feel great. But magically believing that you have all the answers only compounds the risks of falling short of the goal — a sustainable, profitable, successful product.
As they say, the only way out is through. Make intelligent, solid investments in rigorous UX research and design, using professionals well-schooled in capturing and interpreting qualitative and quantitative insights from your users. The scientific aspects of UX research transform the insights into something evident and quantifiable compared to gut hunches.
The sooner you detect your mistakes, the better. As I like to say: “Fail quietly.” It allows you to regroup when the stakes are not nearly as high, increasing your chances of solving real problems for the consumer in the long term.
That way, you’ll never have to worry about answering the ugly, embarrassing question: “Why did your product fail?”
Contact us if you're ready to test your assumptions and connect with end users,