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An Interview with author and MX Speaker Scott Berkun

I recently had a chance to speak with Scott Berkun — designer, author, contrarian and MX 2009 conference speaker about something that has interested me for a long time, but we don’t generally talk about in the design community: failure. We build whole conferences around speaker programs that showcase success, yet learning from failure is something that is less commonly addressed, but arguably far, far more valuable in the long run.

Scott’s thoughts on failure in design have stood out, and that’s why we asked him to tell us a little more in preparation for his talk at MX.

Henning Fischer [HF]: Scott, welcome and thank you for joining me. My first question for you is: What inspired you to look into the reasons why designers fail?

Scott Berkun [SB]: Hmm. Let’s see. FAILING. I’ve worked on many projects and many of them didn’t work out well, or up to my expectations. And in talking to other designers over the years, I’ve learned it’s rare to find a designer who can point to the finished product and say, “This is exactly all that I hoped it would be.” More important, perhaps, is I’m a teacher and I study teaching. It’s clear failures are more instructive and provide more lessons than successes, yet stories of failure are harder to get people to share.

When you get a story of failure from a great designer who has many successes under their belt, you’re getting a true gem of wisdom. Hearing Picasso, Steve Jobs, or Frank Gehry talking about the lessons learned from failures is way more interesting and instructive than hearing about their successes.

HF: Do the reasons for design failure vary across industries or does the frame that you described (psychology, skills and organization) apply broadly?

SB: Definitely broadly — I’m all about universal design. There certainly are traits unique to interaction design or abattoir design (also a kind of interaction, I suppose), but listen to any group of designers talking over beers after work and you hear the same things: Either they’re failing because of their attitude, lack of a skill, or something to do with their organization.

HF: Are there people outside of design asking this question?

SB: Absolutely. Henry Petroski deserves credit in modern times for spotlighting the value of failure, and his original focus was engineering. Dietrich Dörner has studied failure in decision making in his book “The Logic of Failure,” and there are many books about failure in software design, my favorite is “Digital Woes: Why we should not depend on software,” by Lauren Ruth Wiener. And for all the UI people out there, a must have book is “Set Phasers on Stun,” by S.M Casey, which is a collection of, quite literally, death by UI.

HF: You are pursuing this topic further. Any surprises since you started this line of questioning?

SB: Some people hate the idea. They do not want to hear about failures. I guess they’re afraid it might force them to ask questions about their own work. Others find it depressing. I’m not sure why. I find it illuminating. It’s FREE experience. I get to learn a better way of thinking about making things without suffering for it. And then there are some designers who employ a self-limiting kind of pseudo-therapy where they spend their career mostly blaming other people. A study like this that points to the fact there are always things a smart, motivated person can do to minimize failures, challenges that habit. And they don’t like that.

HF: Given the economy, this next period is going to be a tough one for designers. Failure seems like even less of an option than befre. Understanding the reasons for failure is critical, but to many this might seem like opening a can of worms. Why is this even more important now?

SB: Recessions are tough on everbody. However, I wouldn’t say it’s a time to fail less. There are many different kinds of failure, a subject I explore in my talk. Design sketches and prototypes are a kind of failure — they are not complete designs — but they are essential for increasing the odds of getting to one. On a super important mission critical recession era project, where the margins for error are tighter than ever, it means more iteration (again, a kind of deliberate failure) is even more important to ensure the final designs are high quality. A recession might force changes to the kinds of projects available or how many resources you have, but you still need to introduce failures and experiments to successfully design anything. And then of course, if you really can’t afford to fail, you’d better read up on how others in your line have screwed things up on similar projects, so you can safely avoid those mistakes.


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