Is a successful product just dumb luck?

If you haven’t heard Malcolm Gladwell’s talk about “blink” and snap decisions, i highly recommend it.

If you don’t want to hear the MP3, the relevant part for industrial designers is the anecdote about the Aeron chair. He says that NO ONE liked this chair. There were a huge amount of design and engineering challenges that had to be solved (e.g. the mesh) and it was a big, risky project. When they took the final prototypes to buyers the warmest response was “I’d like to see it again when you’re finished.” People thought it looked ugly, and basically just didn’t like it.

Of course that chair went on to become the most popular office chair ever. (apparently. at least it was big for herman miller.)

Now, here’s another anecote. Sony defined an industry with the Walkman. They were the kings of portable music, until they decided to refuse to support MP3 and even more bizarre never came up with the rather obvious idea of putting a small harddisk in a Walkman. And they gave the entire market to Apple and the ipod.

Going back to the aeron chair, it was highly successful, but it was also a symbol for decadence. (An aerso chair was a status symbol and a good way to lure talented employees…) So, it is success was presumably also about as much about timing as about being a comfy chair to code in. The iPod’s success is as much about Sony being totally asleep at the wheel as about it being a well designed portable music device.

So, the question is… Is product design just dumb luck? If success of a product is based on external factors (competition, trends, technology…) then how important is the designer (or design consultancy)? If the last 3 projects were winners, does that increase the chance that the next one will be also?

just wondering…

I wouldn’t call it all “dumb luck” or being “at right place at the right time” But it does have a lot to do with it.

The designer should be aware of the “dumb luck” and most importantly believe in it so much he can convince others that their risky descent into madness with pay off by taking advantage of it.

Suffice it to say, lightening can strike twice in the same spot; but when it happens a third time you know you’re doing something right.

Luck = Risk. Design is about removing risk.

I’ve read that chapter. The Aeron chair was successful because they had talented Industrial Designers working on it that knew they were onto something. The success story owes a lot to the phenomenon of early-adopters. When the chair came out, there was an early-adopter trend towards exposed architecture/loft living, new transient work environments, high-tech status symbols etc. Remember, this is when “Generation X” was getting a lot of press. As designers, Stumpf and Chadwick were onto this.

To me, this chapter is really about the misuse of user testing and (in keeping with the books theme) about “non-intuitive” decision making.

My favorite chapters were about the facial-encoding and the war-game.


Thought this was appropriate…


anybody seen a goody chinese copy of aeron chairs ?

I bought two from Scient for dirt cheap back in 2000. They had an entire floor of them, tags still attached, in a Chicago hi rise.

A nice memento of the era.