How to define a "failure"

An interesting reaction to my talk at Lift09 last week is the one by Tim Leberecht from Frog Design:

"He presented a nonchalant history of product flops (from the picture phone to the smart fridge to location-based services), which were in his judgment all hampered by "over-optimism," "lack of knowledge," and "blind faith in the Zeitgeist." Yet I found his definition of product success flawed as it was obviously based on the principle of mass adoption – a questionable proposition in times of increasingly fragmented audiences and micro-markets. Which new product – besides maybe the iPod and the iPhone – has really gone mainstream in the past ten years? Many of the products and technologies Nova stigmatized as "failures" have found their audience in some form and created significant value both for their inventors and consumers. Yet we simply fail to recognize their success since it occurs in market niches and communities."

His main comment stems from my definition of "failures" that is flawed (or perhaps my absence of definition) because I too much relied on "mass adoption" as an indicator of success, according to what he perceived. Unfortunately, this was not my point. Some comments:

  • I fully acknowledge the importance of niches, as attested by my slide about the non-existence of the "average human". This part was about the importance of targeting products and services (as opposed to designing to a non-existing average person extracted from the masses.
  • I do agree I should have added a slide to define what is a "failure" and what I meant here. Or perhaps I should have discussed the common misconception that failures. While, the failure lies in how a certain vision (a "smart fridge") is turned into a certain product (a certain model of smart fridge), I did not meant that the vision failed. It's indeed true that lots of failed products have resurfaced in other contexts, with new and original usages (videophone vs skype).
  • Although video-communication is a bit used (to convey sign language for example) OR in certain cultures, it's above all a failure in lots of markets.
  • Perhaps my selection of "failures" (videophone, smart fridge, multi-user LBS) was a bit limited and lead him to find it "nonchalant" but I wanted to point out examples (as opposed to showing matrixes and statistics of examples).
  • Besides, unlike my speech (that I wanted more synthetic than academic), I can also use the academic trick of quoting references. That said, I was a bit reluctant to quote this sort of material (hence the nonchalant attitude?) because (1) it would take lots of time to discuss the epistemological basis of research papers, (2) it would sound patronizing in this kind of setting. The literature about failures (and successes) is quite abundant in domains such as management of innovation, marketing or foresight. See for instance Van der Panne, G., C.P. van Beers & A. Kleinknecht: 'Success and failure of innovation: A literature review' which provides an interesting overview of success factors and also points to other papers about this topic. For example, in Asplund, M. & Sandin, R. (1999) The survival of new products, the authors describes that "only one out of every five projects ever initiated proves viable". The literature about foresight is also consistent; Steven Schnaar's "Megamistakes: Forecasting and the Myths of Rapid Technological Change" discusses how forecasts are only 20% to 25% correct. In this case, what is interesting is that it's the vision that is described as a failure (not products)
  • A mistake I made (not pointed by Leberecht but I do think about it anyway) is that my perspective was certainly too occidental and that cultural variations matter. For instance, some smart fridges in Japan and Korea have succeeded.

Regarding the final comment:

"Both Nova and Gyger heralded a more pragmatic model of future-oriented thinking. But I'm not sure if I share their skepticism towards grand visions. What if the future has arrived, however – to paraphrase William Gibson – it is so widely distributed (that is, buried in fragmented micro-markets) that we don't notice it? "

I actually used the same quote from Gibson to indicate that "product failures" are interesting hints for the future. Which refers to the example I mentioned: personal communication with video has been more successfully adopted on laptops/computers compared to videophones and mobile phones. Why do I blog this? simply because critiques like Leberecht's are important as it allows to refine and precise my points. Will try to get back to my pen-and-paper thinking about come up with a deeper definition of "failure".