The dark side of Failing Fast

We love to talk about “fail fast” as a good thing. Let’s talk about the dark side.

As designers, we are in the game because we want to do great things. We want to design products and services that are clever, beautiful and make the world a better place.

There are two reasons why we do this: We have a genuine wish to make the life better to someone else, and we want to boost our ego. Yes, let us be honest, we all have at least a small amount of wish to get positive feedback, just for the sake of getting positive feedback.

Now, our ego is under threat.

In the current conversation about digital and service design, a notion is so widely spread we hardly question it: “Fail fast”. It is often connected to words like “bravery”, “prototyping”, “learning” and “success”. And yet, we rarely hear of any failures.

It’s so rare it becomes a news story when someone is brave enough to tell the truth.

Yes, I believe in failing fast. We never get it right the first time, and the earlier we understand why, the better. Also, tangible output is the best way to nurture a lively and fruitful conversation with stakeholders and users. As a result, it increases the speed towards good design.

But then, we have our ego.

’Failing’ sounds good as a concept, especially if we are talking about others failing. But does it mean that I am meaning to fail? In front of others? To deliver not-so-well-thought-out output? And being criticized about it? Well, yes, it does.

The last years I have worked in different projects where we have agreed on this notion of “failing fast” as something good. We have made quick prototypes and then invited stakeholders to give feedback. As a result, we have gotten feedback like:

  • “The different parts don’t fit together, the structure seems un-logical”
  • “You have not been thinking holistic enough”
  • “You seem to have forgotten to think about [function, user group, need, stakeholder, goal, business implication]”
  • “This is too ugly”
  • “Is this all?”

Not nice to hear if you are a designer, with intentions to make great things. The ego enters the scene. In this situation it is easy to forget the agreement about “failing fast” as something good. It is easy to be defensive. I have felt the urge to shout to everyone in the room: “Our scope is limited!”, “We have just used X hours!” or “It is intentionally ugly, because…!” But that wouldn’t be very professional. Instead, we have continued to iterate and make and present new prototypes. In the end, I have been very proud of the result.

johanDThe article writer, still happily unknowing

The idea of ’failing fast’ have two implications.

  1. As designers we are fostered in making clever, beautiful and making-the-world-better products and services. Making and presenting not-so-well-thought-out output is associated with bad design. Now we need to look at it as a tool. We will be proud of our design later. We have to learn and accept this. It will hurt and we need to be humble.
  2. Stakeholders are fostered in reacting to suggested solutions, not prototypes. As stakeholders, they look for implications from their point of view. Bad design can create damage for their customers, for their processes, for their job. We need to understand that. And we need to actively create an acceptance for prototypes and a feedback culture among the stakeholders.

Our role is different now. We will be rewarded for our good design. But maybe not in the beginning. As a tool to make good design, we have to accept to present not-so-well-thought-out design. And we need to teach our stakeholders about it.

Key takeaways:

  1. Accept making and presenting not-so-good design as a tool to make good design. Deal with your ego.
  2. Facilitate for feedback. Make it clear the prototypes are made to try ideas and to get feedback. Stakeholders may be scared if they think they look at a real suggestion.
  3. Be specific about the feedback you want. A prototype is often a way to test one thing — a function, a structure, an idea. Be clear about what you need.
  4. Embrace all feedback. Feedback is input, not judgement. Do not defend anything.
  5. Make sure to get more chances. If you come back quickly with iterated prototypes — where relevant feedback is taken care of — it is easier for the stakeholders to understand the idea of prototyping and why failing fast is a good thing.

Dare to fail fast, even if it hurts. Learn from it, even if it is painful. Get over your prestige and try again. And finally — succeed, and celebrate that you have become a better designer!

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