It’s more complicated than that …

Yes, you are cherrypicking. Look at antibiotics, transistors, lasers, jet engines, photocopiers, fax machines, contact lenses, high fructose corn syrup, and many others. This is a complicated domain, one that Clay Anderson does a disservice to when he boils years of constant innovation and incremental discovery into a single company that manages to take the next little step and get lucky in the market. Cause and effect is very difficult to tease out in any human domain — better to acknowledge that and try to offer some suggestions, but to say you have it nailed and that others can do the same is naive.

It’s easy to look at successes and construct a narrative of causality. Market success is far more determined by luck and happenstance than people realize.

To do the subject justice, you must also look at failure. How many well designed failures are there? You can make excuses for them, saying their timing was off, they didn’t have the right features, etc. Do you think Jeff Besos doesn’t have much of a clue about design and timing? Last year he spent a lot of his personal time developing a phone that didn’t make it. And he has distribution nailed. Are you saying the design just wasn’t good enough? Maybe, but it might be more complicated than that. It’s easy to say his timing was off, but when you start to break down the concept of “timing,” you very soon get into deep water. It’s complicated. Plenty of successful products owe their remarkable success not to perfect timing or design excellence but to just being in the right place at the right time.

How many poorly designed products have been huge successes? Craigslist, eBay, Microsoft, Oracle, SalesForce, Nokia phones, HP laser printers, Timex watches, Toyota Corolla (bestselling car of all time), Nikon cameras, Angry Birds, Yahoo, etc. Target went with upscale design and was crushed by Walmart. People have no problem with bad design if it does something they really want for less than the (well designed) status quo. Often, something new that solves a common need becomes popular, without much thought about design at all. Cherrypicking doesn’t help the next person figure out what to do.

I would love to see someone study design failure. Then we can really try to understand the role design plays in product success.

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Provocateur, professional heretic, slayer of myths, speaker of truthiness to powerfulness, and defender of the Oxford comma.

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