FAILS: Big Lessons Learned from Projects?

I thought it would be fun to post about some projects that didn’t work. As an industry we fixated on successful case studies (rightfully so), but not every project that goes to production is a home run.

Anybody have the courage to share one?

I’ll kick it off. :slight_smile:

Back in 2009 I led a team at Converse that was tasked with getting the brand back to its roots of performance basketball. On paper we had all the right ingredients, Converse had the heritage of the first performance basketball shoe (the All Star), we had signed Dwyane Wade as our signature athlete (yes), we developed a new cushioning technology with a very strong utility patent, and we had designed a halo model around a historical model called The Weapon Evo… the result was… it didn’t work. It was one of three times in my career to learn the lesson that once you have earned a place in culture, you can not (and maybe should not) overcome that with product alone. The Converse brand had started in basketball but 100 years later it had earned a beloved place in culture as a rebellious symbol of non conformity. A position that was cognitively dissonant from a performance basketball line up. I’m still proud of the product, but I won’t forget the lesson.


We designed this over a decade ago. Made it to market and sold well in Europe…but then it failed. From what I can recall it was a combination of limited market & use and bringing down the price point and…wait for it…factory quality control issues with the magnesium frame. At the end, the owner decided to just stop production. Overall it was a fun project and we still get a lot of ohhh…ahhh from clients.

Call it the FitBit of hand hygiene. Killed it 5 or 6 years ago. Personally-worn hand-hygiene dispenser that could track where and when you had a hand hygiene moment (WHO describes 5 moments when you should be sanitizing your hands as a clinician).

Used the carrot approach. Could see data on the dispenser, weekly emails and a cloud report for administrators. Typically, when first used, the hand hygiene rate would be 3-4x over baseline and eventually settle at about 2-2.5x over baseline.

Problem #1. We need to get outcomes for our sales plan. Meaning, we have to prove if you use our product, you will lower infection rates by a certain amount. Ran a trial at Hopkins that gave us the worst results, neither a positive nor negative outcome. It was entirely wishy washy. Personally, I blame the study design. The randomness was done in a way that contradicted the behavior change that the device was capable of doing. Without behavior change, HH rate declines, no outcomes. Another 6 figures to run another trial was not in the stars.

Problem #2. Even achieving a hand-hygiene rate of 2-2.5x over baseline, the dollar amount for each potential site of a sales rep was too low. Probably too low for them to pull it out of the bag.

Problem #3. Problem #1 and #2 fed off of each other. Can’t sell it, can’t get a free (to me) trial. Don’t have outcomes, can’t sell it.

Also, this was an outlier to our portfolio. Sold it to a company that has a robust hand hygiene line and can be a part of an integrated sale. Hopefully it will be on the market someday.

I’ve had no products that tanked and only a few that were not profitable. However, I did have one project that was a failure according to my boss.

The project was a touch activated kitchen faucet that I worked on (along with two other designers and an engineer). We tried to catch a wave created by a touch capacitive design by Delta about 10 years ago. The Delta model was well protected by patents, so my engineer and I thought of using a piezo touch switch. It wouldn’t be quite as nice, but we thought we could create a reliable and well integrated design none the less. Another two designers along with myself developed the styling of the faucet (mostly the other two).

From day one, I told the rest of the team that the key challenge was going to be manufacturing. The company was used to simple products that were made at one factory. The challenge with this faucet was that there are thousands of great plumbing factories in Asia and thousands of great electronics factories, but no great plumbing and electronic factories under one roof. In spite of that, we spent three or four years looking for one. In the end, we made one proof of concept faucet that worked great, we got two poor quality prototypes and one decent quality prototype. However, the factories were reluctant to guarantee the quality and we never wanted to pay for tooling to make a production quality piece. Bizarrely, we did file a patent application which is public domain (hence my willingness to divulge all of this).

Finally the project failed because all of the other established brands came out with some variety of touch activated or IR activated faucet. Prices started dropping and it would be difficult to convince a retailer to go with us rather than one of the established brands. Therefore it died on the vine.

Looking back, it’s a pity. I think the company could have probably established itself as a plumbing brand with a product so distinctive (we already had a couple other successful, but basic plumbing products in our catalog). On the other hand, it was another lesson that design can only do so much on its own. If we don’t have management buy-in and proficient manufacturing ability, it’s impossible to get even marginally complicated products built.

I don’t know if sales ramped up after I left the company but my favorite project was probably the biggest failure:

This bar code scanner was a design concept created by another designer, and when the president of the company saw it he loved it and asked why we weren’t making it. The top was a customizable IMD bezel and it seemed like a great match for the changing retail market at the time.

I spent months working through the complex tooling, UX, sound design, CMF to try to get it as close to perfect as we could, and from an ID perspective it turned out fantastic. Customers loved it, but not enough to pay a premium over the cheap and good enough corded scanners we already had. And the branding was a great sales story, but the work customers had to do to order a custom SKU was a million times too long and complex. No one wanted to spend 6 additional months to go through the ordering process, and the company refused to embrace a modern process like digital printing which would have worked great for small quantities. To top that off, most of the sales people sold it into stores where it sat in a stand, completely defeating the “sits beautifully on the table” ergonomic.

To this date I’ve only seen two in the field, one in the Cooper Hewitt Design museum check in, and the other at Brooks Brothers. So still my favorite project but proof that design without a good business grounding is a recipe for disaster.

I feel like I saw that in a magazine and thought it was a concept because I’ve never seen one in real life! Great work!

“Fails” can mean many things to me. I recently designed a product series intended to be lower cost/price than similar products in our offering and since designed in-house, no royalties. Very simple geometric construction that validated well with customers and one I was pleased with visually. The team redesigned a few parts in the current mechanism to reduce complexity and costs. Well into the project after engineering, prototyping, testing and several stage gates, I was informed that one of our outside designers (whom I like and respect) was upset when he saw the prototype because he had presented the concept prior. I had no idea he had done a concept like it and would have chosen one of my other 50+ concepts had I known. The hard part is that NOBODY in management informed me, the product manager, or the team that this designer ever presented a similar concept and that we agreed to pay some points to him, despite being designed independently. Lesson: make darn sure from now on that this will never happen again.

Another: There’s a chair in our line I did in early 2000’s that I have some regrets about the final results. Very successful, comfortable chair that nests tightly, arm and armless version, mesh and upholstered back options, and has torsion spring for back flex. BUT, the gusset was unfortunate and the sea of bent tubing looks like an octopus. At that time major capital investments like inj. molding were prohibitive, so manufactured to be made in-house with in-house tubing.

Thanks for sharing your stories everyone. There are some good themes emerging.

There’s a lot of projects in the aircraft industry that are failures. Most of the failures unfortunately are because the designers or the people championing the project aim for the “design awards” category and ignore what the client (airline) wants.

It’s ironic that some of these projects that win design awards are complete financial failures or projects that no airline is buying. A recent story I heard is that in an effort to keep the design details, the specific product failed testing and made development and manufacturing extremely expensive to the point of the company losing money. The sad part is that little by little the project started to deviate from the initial design brief and ended up with a complexly different product than what it originally aimed to be.

For a few years I was a part of a startup homegoods brand that grew out of the design studio that gave me my first job out of college. We were able to stick it out for a couple of years before I was let go (with the company officially folding around 6 months later.) My last hurrah while I was there was a failed crowdfunding campaign for a modular shelving and storage concept, called Wallace.

The lessons learned from this project were many-faceted. Here were the big ones:

  • Do one thing really well, not a bunch of things kind of okay. I really do believe in the basic functional benefits of the product (simple manufacturing, simple installation and removal, modularity), but the product was solving for too many variables, confusing its message in the process. It was a shelf…and a bookcase…and a nightstand…and whatever. It did all of those things fine, but it did none of them in a “must-have” kind of way.

  • Know your market and its willingness to take chances on new ideas. This one really irks me in hindsight, as I expressed a number of times throughout the design and development process that I felt crowdfunding was the wrong vehicle to launch a relatively expensive, non-tech product. The most successful furniture crowdfunding projects at the time were the Floyd table leg and bed, but they were by far the exception and not the norm. For whatever reason, furniture had proven to be a tough sell through crowdfunding - a fact we flat out ignored.

  • Give your project the time it deserves. Do not rush the process. If I remember correctly, the total time from concept ideation to crowdfunding launch was somewhere around four months. The “design” portion of that (i.e. sketching, concept generation, concept refinement, and finalization for prototyping) lasted all of three or four weeks. The remainder of those four months was filled up with development and building the crowdfunding campaign itself. I certainly did the best I could under this ridiculous time constraint, but I absolutely believe we would have had a better chance at a successful campaign with more time devoted to the design phase. It’s just not something you can rush.

Regardless of the failures, I’m still proud of a lot of this project. I was the only product designer on our tiny little team, and creating what we created in such an insane amount of time is an achievement in and of itself.

Thanks for sharing that Jeff. I remember watching that develop as an Encinitas resident. I was always curious about the story.

I remember seeing that crowd fund. Great design work. It sounds like you got a PHD in product development too. Thanks for sharing!

I feel like crowdfunding campaigns are so reliant on the publicity and hype before it ever launches. Read a lot on it and it seems like a 6 month time frame to gather emails and build the publicity before-hand is about as tight as you can go. Most accounts of successful campaigns are through this method rather than the casual browser coming across a project, unless it has already reached a high success.

The wildly successful ones (i.e. $1m+) definitely seem to be heavily supported by pre-seeded and paid marketing these days. The prevailing wisdom I’ve heard is that you need to raise at least 50% of your goal in the first 48 hours to be in solid shape for success. That’s really tough if you’re completely dependent on word of mouth. Not that there aren’t successful grassroots campaigns, too, but it is decidedly more difficult without a ton of high-visibility coverage or advertising leading up to your launch and throughout your campaign.

At the time, it was the first digitally controlled closed circuit re-breather that had targets in the sport, commercial and military markets. The main investor we were working with had the worst breath on the planet from spending too much time on their offshore oil rigs. A pre-launch dispute over profit sharing broke out between my client who owned the brand and the investor who owned the patent just as orders were being taken.

Lessons learned…the bleeding edge of anything in design usually bleeds for a reason.

So much blood loss on this project.

Most epic product blood loss fails however in recent memory are the Theranos blood analyzer and Juicero squeezer…

I’m listening to the Theranos podcast. That is an epic fail. Amazing how many smart people were duped into joining the company.

I watched the Theranos HBO documentary. Insane. Fake it til you make it. It all seems like a giant snowball effect. Nobody could or wanted to say no, so all they could do was continue the lie. One of the best lines was when they interviewed one of the Engineers that was asked to put all this technology into this little box; when he said it wasn’t humanly/physically possible he was told that “maybe he wasn’t silicone valley material”. Priceless.

Can someone tell me if this is really the machine that all these ex-Apple people designed?

I think Jobs would throw up in his grave if he saw this compared to what Apple made.

While Theranos was a pretty big fail in every sense, none of us worked on it (unless maybe one of us did? :slight_smile: )

I’d love to hear more about the fails the we actually worked on and what was learned, if possible. I’ve got a second fail story I need to write up… maybe I’ll post that up tomorrow if I have time.