Embrace failure: inform research using a Pre-Mortem

A pipette fills multiple test tubes ahead of experiements

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” — Thomas A. Edison

One of the most effective ways to kick off a new initiative is to identify how it might go wrong. Similarly, when planning research goals and methodologies, awareness of potential weaknesses can help to establish immediate learning goals.

The Pre-Mortem is a well-established facilitation tool for use early in a project life cycle. As with a number of similar tools, the Pre-Mortem makes use of future projection to address the present.

If you are unfamiliar with it, the activity works like this: an assembled project or product team is asked to imagine a version of the future, a number of months down the line. The project/product/feature has shipped… and has been an abject failure. It wasn’t bought, it wasn’t adopted — whatever failure looks like for the issue in question. The Pre-Mortem then asks, simply: What caused this? Why did it go so wrong?

Eject the elephant from the room

Using a Pre-Mortem, a safe space is created for doubts, concerns or apprehensions to emerge and be expressed as a concern for the future, not as a gripe about the present, even though that’s what it very well may be.

In any team, there are often strongly-held points of view that can seep out throughout the course of not just a meeting, but an entire project. A Pre-Mortem actively invites such thoughts and feelings to be aired. These might otherwise fester, emerging only when there is a bump in the road — “we could have seen this coming!”.

Providing a forum that permits individuals to voice and record their concerns allows these strong opinions to be aired and treated with equity.

“When people have strong feelings about the topic, they often think of the meeting as a contest where their view — which they see as the correct one — should prevail. That leads them to try to convince others that their solution is the right one.”

– Roger Schwarz, author of ‘Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams’¹

While gathering doubts and concerns is a positive step in itself, these can be actively put to work as experiments to find (in Edison’s words) the things that won’t work.

A whiteboard from a pre-mortem workshop, with inputs captured against points in a core user journey
A pre-mortem workshop, with inputs captured around points in a core user journey

Step-by-step

  1. Gather input on post-its . Ask participants to list 3 main factors that will have contributed to the project failing (online this can be done with tools such as MuralMiro, or Google’s free Jamboard).
  2. Group the inputs — take time to find commonalities in the contributions, and collate them into groups.
  3. Identify themes —it may be helpful to think about these 3 categories²:
  • feasibility: can we build, scale and support this — usually this will have a technical skew, but can apply to a broad range of resources.
  • viability: will this be profitable or advantageous for the business.
  • desirability: will customers find value in this.

4. Finally, devise small experiments³, capable of testing problems identified in each area. Be intentional about what you would need to learn, hear or see that will tell you your project will have difficulty succeeding. As a team, discuss the minimum amount of time, capital or resource required to test whether any of the issues represent credible threats to success.

Find what won’t work

If the issue is a real problem, how could you quickly test for it? Even modest pieces of secondary research, prototyping and competitive analysis can qualify, for example:

  • Discover if anyone tried and failed to build something similar before. Have they themselves or others written about their experience? Stories of failure are often well documented.
  • Put low-fidelity prototypes in front of potential customers or users. People testing low-fidelity prototypes are more likely to express negative reactions.
  • Evaluating a market opportunity is a multi-faceted pursuit. But even this can start with a simple examination of existing, successful products which offer similar features, and a realistic assessment of what is required to compete – and where you fall short.

These are rudimentary activities for sure. However, before massive resources are put into motion, such small experiments that address particular elements of risk can challenge flawed beliefs that a product will thrive.

By leveraging the combined wisdom of the team, then gathering corroborating evidence from external objective signals, UX professionals can contribute to de-risking an initiative.

Mitigating risk

The ‘flipped’ nature of the Pre-Mortem is important in establishing a critical mindset. Confirmation bias is a natural human tendency. We look for validation of an idea, and find false positives. Testing for confirmation of weaknesses introduces critical thinking and can counter inherent biases.

“Optionality works on negative information, reducing the space of what we do by gaining knowledge of what does not work.”

– Barry O’Reilly, Optimize to be Wrong not Right

Innovation cannot be manufactured on demand. Success does not follow from throwing unlimited resources and capital at the ‘big idea’. Having more successful ideas is more likely to come from more ideas — small bets — against which small experiments can be run to identify failure points.

No time? No problem

Time more than all resources is limited. If this is the case for you or your team, and follow-up experiments are not an option, try this:

  • Run through the Pre-Mortem exercise until you have a collated set of potential failure points.
  • Discuss mitigations around the issues. Look for actions that can be taken now to alter that possible future. Work towards an actionable plan in the event of anything coming to fruition.
  • Create a reference-able checklist, and review it at each retro or team meeting. If anything highlighted in the Pre-Mortem raising its head, go to your action plan.

Assuming that you have time for the Pre-Mortem itself, the very least you can get out of it is greater awareness. And that awareness can be codified.

Invest in failure

As you plan your stakeholder engagements and workshops, consider investing in a Pre-Mortem. It will typically take anything from 30–90 minutes, and it is capable of revealing that a project is partially or deeply flawed before it begins. For that reason alone it can prove invaluable to your team.


[1]: From ‘Eight Behaviors for Smarter Teams’ https://cdn.csu.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/917018/Eight-Behaviors-for-Smarter-Teams-2.pdf (PDF file)

[2]: From IDEO’s original ‘Three Lenses of Innovation’, introduced in the early 00s https://www.ideou.com/blogs/inspiration/how-to-prototype-a-new-business

[3]: Testing Business Ideas (Bland & Osterwalder, April 2020) is a fantastic resource for understanding how to run experiments against ideas. https://www.strategyzer.com/books/testing-business-ideas-david-j-bland

Designing systems, not UI

Graphical representation of a computer displaying an alert

I’ve written a piece for the Puppet blog on the thinking behind an alerts & notifications system for a new product. I’ve had great feedback on the article, which serves to remind me that I should lift the lid a little more often on the work we’re doing.

Covey’s prioritisation matrix is referenced as part of the piece. This is, of course, a commonly known and commonly-referenced framework. Increasingly though I find myself seeking out new models and frameworks to assist decision-making. They are very much part of the toolkit. I hope the system I’ve outlined here makes it into someone else’s.

https://puppet.com/blog/designing-systems-not-just-ui-alerts-notifications/

Silo mentality: where great customer experience goes to die

decrepit machines

Despite working in experience design, I don’t go around looking for opportunities to criticise products or services. Like most people, I just want to get on with what I need to do and accept that occasional lapses in service are bound to happen now and then. Ten minutes in to a recent hotel stay, however, I was already making notes.

  • After taking my name, the receptionist promptly disappeared through a door and left me standing for 5 minutes. What they had omitted to say was that they were checking if the room was ready.
  • The room key card I was issued didn’t work, requiring a return trip to reception to report it. Then a wait for another to be prepared.
  • A wifi password supplied in the guest welcome pack didn’t let me connect. The correct one was written on the keycard holder, something I was expected to discover.

It turned out to be a perfectly enjoyable stay. In those first few minutes though, I was questioning the wisdom of booking. It was a small example of how seemingly unrelated lapses by a vendor added up to poor overall customer experience.

Some 10 years ago, I switched my bank due to a series of let-downs. I was prepared to go through the pain (at that time) of moving current and savings accounts away from a bank of 12+ years. During a protracted series of phonecalls, one explanation offered for the difficulties I was facing was: “that’s another department… we don’t deal with that here.” 

Departments are a reality in any organisation of course. But as conduits of conflicting priorities or processes, silos are self-serving, destructive entities. Variations on Conway’s Law litter our daily physical and digital interactions. Customers are not interested in how your organisation is structured. When it becomes visible to them, it is usually at the cost of a cohesive experience.

A common problem is that teams working on a product or service know intimately how everything hangs together; they are well versed in the complexity of what’s being created. This awareness can surface as a tendency to see difficult challenges as insurmountable obstacles. Very often, process is wheeled out as a defence of current practices, or a cure-all elixir. Cross-departmental initiatives are hard work, which tends to make them unattractive. The result can be a culture that simply accepts ways of working that do not deliver value. 

Naturally, this is all rich, raw material for designers, and service design in particular. Time and again as a design consultant the most radical thing I could do was to reflect what customers were going through back at the organisation. A lack of focus on, or understanding of, creating value for customers is a fundamental issue.

A customer-centered perspective can be the unifying force in the relentless struggle against imposed friction, while also providing a guiding light for new initiatives. Leadership should look to clear the way for ideas to thrive across divisions. Individuals or teams are required with sufficient drive and resilience to face down inertia and defensiveness, even the rampant virus of cynicism.

Siloed organisations are machines of aimless intent, efficient only at generating endless reasons why customer and user experience can’t be made better. Silos are anti-customer and anti-value.

Hard work it may be, but the option not to get rid of such barriers is all but gone. Ultimately every organisation needs to decide – consciously – whether defending silos and siloed thinking is more important than creating and retaining customers.

UX Belfast meetup, May 2018

The Belfast UX bookclub meetups continue, and 30 May gathering had author Sara Wachter-Boettcher taking questions and providing insights on ’Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech’.

Images from UX Belfast meetup, May 2018
Images from UX Belfast meetup, May 2018

This marked the twentieth UX Belfast meetup I’ve organised and, significantly, the best attended. A partnership with Women in Tech Belfast for the evening contributed hugely to that milestone. That said, interest in the group is rising rapidly, with over 220 members on the Meetup.com page at time of writing.

Sara’s book made Fast Company’s Top 10 Business & Leadership books of 2017, and Wired’s Top Tech books of 2017. Although a relatively short read, Sara has managed to gather a shocking number of case studies and examples where technology might be successfully delivering ‘engagement’ with users but letting humans, even society, down in the process.

Further information on the book, as well as Sara’s work as an independent content and UX consultant, can be found at her website http://www.sarawb.com.

Huge thanks to partners for the evening, Women in Tech BFS. Thanks also to PuppetBelfast for providing the great venue and refreshments, Slice app for the copious amounts of pizza and to WW Norton UK for discounts and copies of the book to give away.

To thank Sara for her time, a donation has been made to local charity, WomensTec. For more information visit http://www.womenstec.org

Empathy, deconstructed

Psychology is just one of many areas designers can sometimes stray into for guidance or assistance. Anything which reminds us that we are flawed humans, attempting to design useful things for other humans is a good thing.

Carl Rogers’ Person-Centred Therapy (PCT) makes for interesting reading for the modern design professional. Rogers’ innovative approach, now over 50 years old, ran counter to the remote and detached forms of psychotherapy prevalent at the time. Specifically, PCT contains a number of principles that align with key qualities of effective design thinkers and problem-solvers.

The approach features three core conditions, each of them with direct relevance to the creation of positive user experiences.

One of Roger’s core conditions is unconditional positive regard (UPR). UPR is “the basic acceptance and support of a person regardless of what the person says or does”. Substitute person for user and you have a pretty good foundation for user-centred design. As design luminary Don Norman has put it, “what we call ‘human error’ is a human action that … flags a deficit in our technology. It should not be thought of as an error.” Which sounds like UPR in so many words.

Another condition is congruence; “the willingness to transparently relate to clients without hiding behind a professional or personal facade”. The parallel in design might be a desire to facilitate top tasks, and present easy paths to goals without the clutter of marketing or sales to present obstacles.

The essence of user-centred design is appreciating users as humans with needs, goals and limited time on their hands in which to achieve them. And why must we humanise the user? In order to practice the human quality of empathy – coincidentally the third of Rogers’ core conditions.

There are increasing amounts of lip service given to empathy in our professional & social feeds. It sounds worthy and is difficult to argue against. What we don’t often see are answers to questions about how to leverage it, how to make it practical.

The imperative of empathy for designers means identifying with others enough to create something which, no matter how small, makes their life easier. UPR has huge relevance; as designers we should demonstrate a positive regard for whatever our users’ motivations and needs might be. To create meaningful product experiences which connect users with their goals, it falls on us also to treat the pursuit of those goals and associated needs with respect.

Good design demands empathy and insight. UCP provides some simple ground rules for beginning to flex that empathy muscle.