How fear of failure makes your product cost more, take longer to build and still not be right

What makes companies so confident in their assessment of what their customers want, or what their boards want or what management wants?

So many companies are afraid of what people will think without having any data to support the fear.

More so than other types of products, the rise of the digital product has given companies opportunities to test things early on in the design and development process. Conventional wisdom says changes or errors caught in the design phase cost 1/10 of changes later on in the product lifecycle. So why don't more companies test other ideas?

Here are some signs you're designing a full-fledged product prematurely:

You are absolutely sure you know exactly what your customers want
You have spent a long time developing a very long very detailed set of specifications that prescribe how to build the idea
You have set up all the infrastructure – servers, sales, marketing, support, etc. – before any customers have even tested the product.

The value of failure is learning

Overheard at a meeting of entrepreneurs recently, investors hold parties for CEOs who fail with their first venture. It's an open joke that most entrepreneurs don't know what they're doing their first time around. So it's sort of a right of passage.

And then again, investors won't get within 100 miles of an entrepreneur who has failed two or more times. Why is that? It's a misunderstanding of the value of failure.

When a product fails, it can either be the beginning of a feedback loop, or just “the end.” The value of failure is that it provides an opportunity to learn something. Generally speaking, these are things that cannot be learned in a vacuum or in advance.

Another cliché is, "fail fast." Talking with clients about this concept, it's clear that this is another misunderstood idea. Failing fast does not mean, as some have internalized it, to fail quickly so that you know when to cut bait and try a new product. In fact, failing fast allows products to change. It allows products to adapt to the actual need. We have found time and time again that actual users are full of surprises, even with the very first interaction. They can break the product in ways you never even thought possible, and will often give you ideas better than the ones you had yourself.

Planning to fail

So how to harness the power of failure? In our user experience design process, we like to set up a plan of prolonged feedback loops where products appear in front of potential stakeholders, customers, and others, so that we can get feedback quickly. We like two weeks cycles. We want to deliver something that is a smaller version of the product, simpler.

We get in front of the stakeholders so they can give us feedback on the small changes since the last version of the product. That gives them time to focus, it gives you some time to engage and get valuable feedback. We can then take the product back into the studio, make design changes, advance the product a little further, and put it front of a customer - hoping to fail again.

Over the course of many iterations, a streamlined, honed, focused product emerges out of the the collaboration of companies, our studio, and real-world client feedback. In many circles this is called lean development, or agile development.

How can you apply this to your business?

When your company gets into an innovation or product development mode, you will get the best results if you start with the grand vision and support the journey there in small discrete steps. This doesn't have to apply to just technology. Paper and clay prototypes, drawings, etc. fall into the category of being able to fail fast.

Be flexible, be open-minded

Every now and then a visionary like Steve Jobs seems to defy this and tells us that "the customers don't know what they want - you have to tell them." I think this type of attitude comes with a grain of salt. Even the iPhone was a huge success only after decades of Apple being a very distant runner-up in the PC game, the failure of the Apple Newton handheld and other iterations.

Successful product companies will be open minded and want feedback from customers. The failures we have seen have come largely from product makers who have a rigid view of the product, and refused to take feedback from the outside.

So take advantage of the information that failures provide you and feed them back into the product to deliver the highest value outputs the fastest.

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