Fail fast, learn fast — not so fast

In the worlds of Lean Startup, Lean UX, and Design Thinking (DT), the prevailing wisdom tells us to build the smallest viable thing, test, evaluate, and iterate. The reason being, the more time, money, and effort you invest in the untested, the more you stand to lose. And, the more likely you are to get it wrong.

Let’s face it, until something is validated it’s just an assumption. In that way, fail fast, learn fast, just makes good sense. So what’s the problem?

In DT, for example, there are three steps to take before building. Empathize, define, and ideate. These are all intended to challenge our assumptions so we can build a better hypothesis before we build. Many are jumping straight o build and iterate, and skipping these critical steps.

When we begin with a wild guess rather than an informed hypothesis we’re more likely to fail big and learn little.

Not all failure is equal

We need to get real clear on the fact that not all failures are equal in scale or their ability to provide learnings. Failure is not an absolute condition. Failure spans a scale from insignificant to catastrophic.

The Big Bang Theory: Gradations of Wrong – YouTube

It is a little wrong to say a tomato is a vegetable, it is very wrong to say it is a suspension bridge. – Stuart to Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory

Unless you’re building a suspension bridge or other thing that has the real potential for life and death, most of your mistakes will never reach the catastrophic end of the scale. That said, when it comes to learning from our mistakes, the bigger they are, the harder it is to learn from them.

The reason it’s so hard to learn from bigger failures is due to the number of variables that may have played a role. Did we target the wrong audience? Did we test the wrong features? Were there too many feature, or too few? Were we addressing the right problem? How do we know?

The more variables at play, the more chances we have to focus on the wrong one. These larger failures are most often due to beginning with an uninformed assumption rather than an informed hypothesis.

Before we build a prototype to test, and before we can build an informed hypothesis, we need to test our assumptions. As a traffic court judge once said to me, “When you assume, you make an Ass of U and Me.”

Testing assumptions is the least expensive and most impactful step in failing fast, learning fast. Ask yourself, and your team, questions like:

  • How do we know our assuptions are right?
  • What data supports that assumption?
  • What data contradicts the assumption?

Anyone in science or math knows that no matter how right your answer is, if you start with the wrong assumption, the answer is wrong. Make no mistake, creating a great user experience is a science. For example, BetaMax lost to VHS because it assumed that image quality was more important than the length of the recording. (Sorry if you’re not old enough to remember BetaMax and VHS recorders)

Validate your assumptions by doing Kano analysis, conducting some user interviews, and running surveys. You can often get insights in as little as a few hours or a few days. Use these findings to write jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) stories to help you build an informed prototype for testing. It’s always less expensive to test assumptions than prototypes.

Build a better hypothesis before you build anything else

The quality of our questions determines the quality of our life. – Tony Robbins

It doesn’t matter how we answer the questions above. It only matters how our target audience answers them. It’s easy to believe we figured things out. The unfortunate truth is that or brain is wired to make this happen.

  1. Our brain is a pattern recognition machine. It excels at this. It’s excellent at this. But there’s a problem.
  2. Our brain likes to confirm what it knows. It’s called the confirmation bias. We all have, suffer from, it. It’s how it build patterns. We see what we want to see.

Have you ever thought of something and the suddenly everything seems to say you’re right? If you think a certain design pattern is bad, you suddenly find dozens of articles that agree with you. They tell you how they tested the pattern, and sure enough, it doesn’t work. Ever happen to you? Of course it has. It’s happened to all of us. Why?

You likely did a search to find out if others felt the same way. You may have used a search phrase like “Is {design pattern] bad?” or “How bad is {design pattern}?” Google, unsurprisingly, returns thousands of articles about how bad it is. What would have happened if instead you used a search phrase like, “Does {design pattern} work?” or even better, “How well does {design pattern} work?” Guaranteed, you get different results. Try it.

When we know the answer we want, it’s easy to ask the questions that get us that answer. Everyone wants to believe they know the answer, so they set out to find evidence that supports their position. It’s rare that people go out of their way to prove themselves wrong. And that’s also a problem.

Don’t skip user research and jump straight to building something to test. Part of the reason fail fast is possible, is because you’ll always get it wrong the first time. The question is, how wrong? A little, or a lot, or even catastrophic? Up front research can help you build a better hypothesis before you begin building a solution. Talk to your audience first. Ask them about your ideas.

Henry Ford and Steve Jobs were mostly wrong

People are quick to jump on quotes of Ford (still openly debated) and Jobs to support their position that people don’t know what they want or need, so why bother to ask them.

If I asked people what they wanted, they’d say faster horses. – Henry Ford (debatably)

A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them. — Steve Jobs.

This is another case of a little wrong or a lot. Jobs is a little wrong. You can ask questions of people and get insightful answers. but, you do have to ask the right questions the right way to make sure you aren’t playing to your confirmation bias.

Ford on the other hand was a lot wrong. There’s at least one clear insight in the answer he anticipated. People needed to get from one place to another faster. Now, it’s up to the innovator to figure out how that happens.

In both cases, these legendary innovator were wrong to think that people don’t what they want or need. For many, there was desire to connect with others faster, from more places, more often, and in more ways. Viola, the iPhone. People needed to get places faster, not have to shovel horse manure, or get rained on while doing so. Viola, the automobile.

Would the average person have conceived of those specific solutions? Unlikely. Do you always need to build something before you know if the need exists? Maybe, but not always. Ask before you build. Reduce the risk of wasted effort. Reduce the size of the failure. In the process you will improve your ability to get insight from you failures. Insights that you can act upon. Insights that increase your chances of success.

I hope you’ll adopt a new mantra. Fail better, learn better.

6 Reasons No One Needs a Fold Manifesto

This is an article I posted on LinkedIn. If you read “The Fold Manifesto” by Amy Schade of the Nielsen Norman Group (NN/g) and it has you convinced “the fold” is major design challenge, read this before you do anything rash like add a carousel to your homepage. Save yourself from worrying about one of the least important aspects of web design so you can focus on what truly matters – compelling, structured, well-organized, prioritized content.

Feeling Your Consumer: What Marketers Are Missing About Making Emotional Connections

In Feeling Your Consumer: What Marketers Are Missing About Making Emotional Connections, Douglas Van Praet offers some great insight into the connection between our emotion and motor systems based on research. This is great read for anyone that is truly concerned with successful marketing. It offers even more evidence that it is our emotions that drive action and not logic.

Win User Loyalty by Targeting Logic AND Emotions at UXPA London 2014

Presenting at UXPA London 2014 BadgeI’m happy to announce I will be presenting an updated version of the Emotional Strategy for Balanced UX Design at the upcoming UXPA International Conference in London, July 22, 2014.

Win User Loyalty by Targeting Logic AND Emotions looks at why emotions are such an important factor to consider at every stage of design. It also explains when, where, and how to use emotions by looking at The 4 Stages of Accomplishing Goals. The 4 Stages explains HOW we experience everything.

After the conference I will post up the slide deck to Slideshare and hopefully I’ll have link to a video recording of the session to share as well. Hope to see you in London.

Emotional Strategy for Balanced UX Design

Emotions are arguably the most powerful of human motivators and yet most design projects lack an explicit strategy to use or target them as part of the overall experience design. A truly fulfilling experience is one that balances our logical and emotional needs and wants.

When an experience only satisfies the logical side of our mind we’re often left with little feeling of connection to the experience. When an experience only speaks to our emotional side we’re often left second guessing our choice because we can’t rationally explain our choice to ourselves or others.

A balanced experience that satisfies both parts of our mind are the ones that create deep and lasting connections. These are the experiences that build loyalty with customers creating lasting relationships that survive even the worst of times.

In order to use emotions as both a targeted outcome for the experience and as a strategy to achieve that outcome we must first understand how have an experience. The 4 Stages of Accomplishing Goals provides this insight into HOW we experience everything. These 4 stages are the same for every person, they happen every time, and happen in the same order.

The 4 Stages of Accomplishing Goals also explains where, when and how emotions impact and influence our resulting experience. We’ll learn not only how we experience everything but also WHY we choose to accomplish some goals and not others. Once we’re clear on the 4 stages we can make emotions a strategic part of building a balanced user experience.

Holistic Approach to Web Design

In this presentation I talk about the importance of balancing the useful, usable and desirable qualities of a web site to create a great user experience. Through a content out, mobile first, progressive enhancement approach you can reach the greatest number of potential viewers while ensuring the most appropriate experience for each in the process.

The purpose of the holistic approach is to never lose site of the user and what they are really visiting your site for and that is your content. This approach is built on the ideal of radical inclusion. That is to say that nothing we do as designers or developers should ever prevent the user from accessing our content.

As always I’d like to hear your thoughts on that subject. Enjoy.

Article I wrote for InternetRetailer.com

What Internet retailers should know about responsive web design: InternetReatiler.com

I was asked to write this article in response to a particularly inaccurate article that InternetRetailer.com had run that contain several misleading and just plain incorrect comments about responsive web design. In all fairness, the author of the original article was not a front-end developer and simply quoted others that had poorly represented what responsive is and what it’s responsible for.