Fast Company

Six Ways to Avoid Landing in the Product Failure Bin

A decade ago the ability to generate ideas for businesses was a terrific and unique offering, and often a good business. Many companies and consultants were conducting workshops aimed at coming up with ideas, hundreds of ideas, and getting paid handsomely to do it. Today, it seems most of the businesses I deal with have more than enough ideas, it's determining the right ones to invest time and energy into that is the trick.

In the hallways of Northwestern University, where I teach product design, a common and often-quoted statistic is that eight out of ten new product introductions fail. Of the two that make it through the first year, eight out of ten of those fail in year two. What a dismal success rate. In order to make sure your new product introduction is not one of the "never had a chance" crowd, try some of these strategies:

1. Don't have a casual relationship with the truth. Or, said another way, how a brand works and what is inside, had better line up with what the outside promises. Brands that over promise and oversell, be it through styling or labeling, will meet a certain, swift death in today's hypercompetitive market. They will be ratted out on the Internet by legions of anonymous, enabled, pitchfork-wielding consumers ready to unmask snake oil wherever it's detected. If you don't want to end up in the innovation death pile, make sure what you're selling lives up to the hype. If it doesn't, rather than pushing it at people, you'd be better off reconsidering whether you should do it at all.

2. Side effects can kill repurchase. An enchanting basil-scented cleaning product that smells as wonderful as the picture suggests, turns into a ultimately disappointing consumer experience when it leaves a streaky film in sunlight. Or how about this: Take a popular kids' drink, concentrate it, put it into a squeeze bottle, squeeze it into a glass of water and POW! Instant drink. Great idea, right? Until you realize that the package you've just created, in the hands of a middle schooler, is a squirt gun filled with permanent clothes staining ammunition that is stickier than flypaper. If the first moment of truth is purchase, and the second is use, it's really the third moment, when someone comes back to buy it again--or not--that makes or breaks the business.

sleep hat3. If the emperor has no clothes, say so. "Right, JB!,we are on it, great idea!" Or, as Monty Python would say, "Splunge." Have the courage to stand up to nutty ideas no matter where they originate. As long as the quality of the idea is your motivation, what formerly might have gotten you fired, could make you a new product hero today. Find ways to get around company politics, skewer sacred cows, and re-invent tired protocols, and your solutions will have a better chance of connecting. If consumer behavior and purchase habits have changed dramatically, then by logic, the same old, same old will not work to develop new, killer solutions to problems.

4. Knock yourself off before someone else does. When the program is near completion, and the rollout is planned, gather all the unused concepts off the floor, especially the ones that were too "far out," and start three new initiatives for trying to outdo your product before it even debuts. By knocking yourself off before others do, you may learn some important things about the product you are about to introduce. At a minimum, this strategy will allow you to develop a thicket of patents to interfere with future would- be lampreys. Then double down by staging these "knock yourself offs" as future pipeline ideas, or as I like to call them, "Vectored" solutions. You will eventually have created a continuous innovation stream.

5. Go fast even if you don't need to. It sounds counter-intuitive, but in the right situation it can be a wildly successful technique. I had a client who never did any insight work or research. Office products. We must have made ninety of them one summer alone. The company was very successful. The client would identify a need via observation and common sense deduction, and then work the answer until it was right at breathtaking speed. (It was Gladwell's "Blink" thesis in action.) We made many hundreds of product prototypes, and threw them out there until some connected. A handful of hits more than compensated for the more abundant misses. There was joy and uninhibited creativity in the process and the work felt fresh.

6. Facebook is the new focus group. If you are working on ideas, instead of keeping them secret, put them out there for response. At minimum, use the Internet and chat rooms and social networks--or even a forum like this--to test them. Sharing content is part of a new attitude around understanding user experience. If there is a "reveal" issue, you can cloak it. Use the flip of the Web anonymity issue highlighted in point one. Find out what the tribe or community of people who are invested and aligned around the issue honestly think and you will have an early understanding if your product is headed for success...or pointed toward the dreaded failure bin.

Read more of Mark Dziersk's Design Finds You blog

Mark Dziersk is the VP Design at Brandimage-Desgrippes & Laga, one of the world's largest design and branding firms. At brandimage, Dziersk has worked on projects for clients ranging from Dove to Banana Republic to a pop-up store for Henri Bendel. Dziersk joined brandimage in 2007, after 13 years at the Chicago product design firm Herbst Lazar Bell, where he and his teams won dozens of awards for products as diverse as the Motorola NFL Coaches' Headset, to the first-ever single use camera for Kodak. Dziersk, himself, holds over 100 patents.

Dziersk gives back to his larger professional community as well, having served on the board of the Industrial Designers Society of America and as president of the Society in 1998. He also acted as executive editor of IDSA's premier publication, Innovation, introducing new design elements and recruiting authors from outside the design field. Mark's course, "Essentials of Industrial Design," in Northwestern University's Master of Product Development program, helps left-brained types get comfy with their inner tattooed design side.

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5 Comments

  • jeni martin

    But isn't that the point? Even if your product is great, if you can't get people to buy it, you will fail. Or, if the hardware is crap but you market it well (ie, Vista), people still won't buy it. You have to have both: a good product and good marketing/word of mouth to get people to buy it. Zune may have nice hardware, but you hardly ever hear anything about it or see any adverts anymore. It's like MS has given up on it and is just going to let it wither and die.

    ( buy degree , fast degrees and online high school diploma )

  • I'm the Cold Wiz

    Here's a harsh reality that (speaking of telling the emperor that he doesn't really have his clothes on!) no one will tell Marketing VP's, Directors, Mid-level managers, or entry level Associates: Leave Design to the DESIGNERS! Sure, it's fun to design stuff...it's great to make things look colorful and pretty, etc...However when a person with a degree in business and a home PC with a free trial for Photoshop starts tweaking and massaging designs that have been developed (for a reason) by design professionals and artists, you can be sure that your design will wind up in that failure bin. To all of you "creative" marketeers, here is my advice: Step away from the idea that you are somehow a designer...just because you have an opinion. There's a major difference between the two. I have NEVER seen a Designer try and create a spreadsheet with a marketing plan....it's because they know to stay in their own yard.

  • Brian Gable

    I completely agree on the idea of going fast even when you don't need to. I've had a lot of experience working with various types of engineering people - the extremes of which are those who either like to run fast and loose, or take the slow, cautious, methodical, and thoroughly tested approach. Where creativity and design are required, which includes trouble-shooting design problems, my experience is that the speed demon always wins out. In other words, by the time success is reached by the risk taker, the person invested in the methodical approach is still stuck in validation mode. Certainty is one great product of failure.