Exploring failed futures at Lift09

At Lift09 the other day, I gave a modified version of my earlier talk about failed products/futures. I tried to take into account the remarks I received from various attendants of Design Engaged and came up with the following script: Smart fridges, flying cars and visiophones are common examples of innovations designed by technological companies and envisioned by science-fiction writers. Devices you always see in beautiful ads and that you never buy or you stop using almost immediately after acquiring them. You often see them in pulp novels from the 20s and glossy ads from the 60s. To some extent, they can be perceived as futures that refuse to arrive; some sorts of suspended endpoints that keep luring us again and again.

(Visual representation of my talk by Martin Kuipers)   Most of the time, they are not isolated examples: there is not just one model of intelligent fridge, nor one type of flying car. Failures are often repeated; they are recurring till the happy end where a convenient instantiation of the future can be found. This is what happened with visiophones. For forty years, plenty of phone boxes with videos and pictures have been designed and have always failed. Personal communication with pictures finally works out with desktop PCs and laptops using software such as Skype. The idea was correct, the instantiations were wrong as explained by Chris Heathcote in a blogpost commenting my talk at Design Engaged.   Personally, failed products fascinate me. My work is to carry out studies of how people use technologies to help designers refine their products. From this point of view, I cannot help being mesmerized by artifacts, which are not appropriated. Is it useful? I do think it is. First, failures often result in more detailed critiques than successes. The documentation of inadequate products offers a rich material to help learn from mistakes. Second, as the example above has shown, failures are simply good ideas that came before their time. As William Gibson, the science-fiction author, says “the future is already here. It's just not very evenly distributed". Spotting failures is therefore a good way to understand possible avenues for the future. Finally, understanding why something failed is a good input for design, perhaps even a “design strategy” where mistakes from the past are just seen as iterations towards a success.   What are the reasons for failed products? In general, there are three issues:

  1. Innovation is not just technical: a technological breakthrough is not enough to design a product. A product must fulfill a need and fit with people’s habits. For example, it’s nice to have a fridge that can scan your food and display the time limit. However, you need RFID tags or barcodes on every food item to work this out. It’s tough to ask people to tag their own food for so little benefit. A good understanding of future users is important and often missing. It simply means that a product should not be designed for the “average human” but for a target with specific needs and behavior.
  2. The big picture is often ignored: the technology is fine but the world is not ready to accept it. Think about flying cars, even if technology was ready, it would be tremendously difficult to have new regulations and signposts adapted to 3D navigation!
  3. The way we perceive change is flawed: we often think change is linear and that the future will be based on the past. But it is not the case, big changes occur: the arrival of digital cameras was quite a surprise for companies such as Kodak. Moreover, we tend to over-estimate the speed of short-term adoption and under-estimate the dissemination of technology as pointed out by futurist Roy Amara.