Pizza for dessert: why products fail

March 24, 2016

It turns out there is a name for that thing when you walk into a room then can’t remember what you went in for. Somewhat disappointingly it’s called the Doorway Effect.

Apparently the very act of crossing a boundary between rooms affects our memory function enough to lose the thread of our intended actions. That being the case, what name might apply to a scenario where a product team forgets what they are building the product for?

If that sounds ludicrous, consider the following. There’s a story about Sony co–founder Akio Morita and his efforts to bring into being one of the most successful consumer products of the 20th century, the Sony Walkman.

Morita originally conceived of the personal stereo idea when he visited New York in the 1970s and saw people walking around with boom–boxes on their shoulders. He realised the potential for a device that delivered a personal listening experience, but in pocket–sized form.

He returned to Japan, excitedly telling the product development team about his idea. The concept made its way across various levels of the organisation, passing through engineers, managers and product designers. When the first prototype came back to Morita, it most closely resembled… a boombox.

Somewhere, the essence of Morita’s idea had been lost. The product team had walked into a room and forgotten what they went in for.

The story serves to typify the challenge of keeping a product on track and ensuring that all involved in its development get it. We might call this ‘True North’; the course by which all other aspects of the product are calibrated.

In Valley Ranch Business Park, somewhere in Michigan, stands a building operated by GfK Custom Research North America. Inside, lines of shelves carry examples of a diverse range of products all sharing one key characteristic – they failed in the marketplace.

In there you will find, amongst other things, Clairol’s ‘A Touch of Yogurt’ shampoo right next to Gillette’s ‘For Oily Hair Only’, just down the aisle from Pepsi’s ‘Breakfast Cola’. You’ll see discontinued lines of caffeinated beer, or Colgate–branded TV dinners. For Steve Jobs aficionados, you’re also likely to see at least one Apple product in the mix.

These products, which we have to assume were subject to rigorous rounds of research, design and testing, are testament to a singular, harsh truth: most products fail.

While there are certainly obvious howlers on the shelves, there are many credible efforts also represented. Products can stumble for any number of reasons. Some suffer from untested business models, some from ill–considered marketing, others because of plain bad manufacturing. But one over–riding factor emerges as key to failure: the product was either solving the wrong problem, or more accurately, it was attempting to solve a problem that nobody had.

In product development, there can be no more effective question to focus the mind than “what problem are we solving?”. If the answer isn’t clear, the challenge can often be one of articulating purpose in a manner that the entire product team can buy into. But if the answer can’t be articulated, or simply doesn’t exist, the product may be on course for a place on the shelf in Valley Ranch, right next to Dominos’ ill-fated “Oreo Dessert Pizza”.

The process of building any product is, in true X–Factor parlance, a journey; sometimes a painful, agonising haul to achieve a vision that can become distorted and blurred. In identifying a product’s True North, it’s essence is sustained and the path to purpose becomes much more navigable.

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    Designing the Middle is the personal blog of Rick Monro, a UX designer & consultant in Belfast, Northern Ireland

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