Information security is a particularly interesting and important topic these days, given the number of services that are online, all of which require accounts and have conflicting standards for password strength. I’m not the first person to observe this, and OpenID deserves credit for recognizing the problem and providing a solution, flawed though it may have been.
As the book discusses, years ago, the creator of LiveJournal realized the impending challenge that the growing number of user IDs, passwords, and standards for creating user profiles would present. His solution worked well within the LiveJournal ecosystem and was attractive to other online entities because they could effectively offload responsibility for account creation to another system.
The idea that users could have a single identity that they could use across multiple sites is incredibly attractive. Tim Berners-Lee’s Solid project suggests that this need still exists and, because of the concern about the ownership of identifying information, may be on the rise. Lombardi identifies several shortcomings in the OpenID system, including the issuing authorities, who used different standards for establishing accounts. Technical problems could also arise if an issuing authority experienced an outage. Ultimately, it seems that the biggest barrier to adoption was the difficulty users had in forming a mental model for how their identities worked.
Following his structure for evaluating experiences, Lombardi provides a concise explanation of the experience, its problems, and ultimately, why it failed.
Nobody Is Safe from Bad Decisions
Apple is an interesting company. I reckon that, if I asked some random people to name companies who make user-friendly products, they would, more often than not, mention Apple.
While Apple is certainly one of the most successful firms in the world, the company is not perfect. Writing this article on a recently released MacBook Pro reinforces that notion. Despite its heavily marketed Touch Bar, this MacBook is widely considered to be one of the worst computers Apple has produced. This is just one example, and it’s not from the book. Of course, Apple has had its fair share of product flops—even during the Steve Jobs era—and Lombardi presents two of them in his book. While I won’t tell you what they are, I will say that they are just a small number of the experience-design failures that Apple has had over time.
The inclusion of Apple in this book serves as a warning: even a company that is as well regarded and capitalized as Apple makes errors in designing user experiences. It’s not unusual for executives or project teams to compare themselves to Apple in their pursuit of success in designing products and experiences. I see two vital lessons in the Apple examples.
First, teams may conclude that designing successful products is innate to Apple. Such comparisons would be an exercise in futility if other teams cannot achieve similar success. However, this is clearly not the case. Apple’s history is littered with bad designs, poor execution, and sometimes, just bad timing. So teams should take solace in the idea that Apple is just another company like so many others.
Second, I’ve experienced project teams that were subject to a certain amount of hubris, erroneously assuming:
- Their team comprised smart people who wouldn’t make such experience-design mistakes.
- Investment in User Experience is not necessary.
However, Lombardi’s book shows that even a company as smart and successful as Apple has made missteps in designing products. Smaller firms who do not have users at the center of their focus—and, thus, shortcut research and design—cannot hope to achieve success without User Experience.
Frequently, a product’s user experience is not its single point of failure. Often, it’s just a matter of bad luck, bad timing, or a lack of capital. In virtually every case that Lombardi describes in this book, product teams identified a problem or opportunity and tried to design a solution. In some cases, the product teams were overly cautious, undercutting their product’s potential for customer adoption. In other cases, they developed interesting technology, but lacked a real application for it that would improve people’s life experiences.
If I were to develop a course on User Experience and business strategy, Why We Fail would certainly be on my short list for likely reading assignments. It is vital that UX professionals should have a grasp of product and organizational strategy, so they can identify when and where they can make a difference in the broader context.