Pontiac Aztek Fail — what it teaches us

I read a very interesting discussion recently, in Road and Track “The Pontiac Aztek Debacle”.

The article was about the Pontiac Aztek. Maybe you’ve heard of it, maybe you haven’t. To sum it up, a quote from the story, “the greatest failed model [automobile] in recent history”. Yea, it’s that kind of car. Even Homer Simpson could design a better car.

The article went over this story and I found three salient points. The first, that it didn’t just fail market research, it came “dead last”. And respondent’s quotes were true gems here;

“I wouldn’t take it as a gift”.

Ouch. Pretty harsh for a car.

Now, you can read my rant about market research data here and why this alone would not necessary speak ill of the Aztek design. But it should have been at least a “yellow” cautionary flag for GM.

This made me think the Aztek design team should have at least wondered about this data point and get to the bottom of what it really meant. But the next point here may have served to prevent that kind of diligence.

The second item from the article about the Aztek spoke to the danger of the “totalitarian management style” that was the culture at GM. No one dared say the emperor had no clothes. I wish I could say different but I’ve seen this in my career as a designer and a developer, and it creates a bad outcome and worse, a sense for all the team that logic, reason and sanity are no longer in play.

Here I felt we were getting closer to the heart of the issue, but the third point was the one that stood out for me. And one that has and can lead us astray on design projects I’ve seen in my workplace.

In the story, they spoke with one of the top guys from the project, who reflected and said,

“I’m proud of it. That was the best program we ever did at GM. We made all our internal goals, we made the timing”

This car was an absolute failure in the market. But this person, who was in a role of directing this project views it in terms of success…why?

I think, sadly, this can ring familiar to many. The bottom line for this guy and for many folks involved in running projects, is that you make a project plan, and meet or exceed your milestones, goals and deliverables. And that alone, that simple bottom line is your goal, your target and the measure of your success. We too often decouple the market outcome, the product success, the consumer’s delight in the product from the mechanics of delivery. Being large and engaging in complex products requires us to have focus and to isolate things down to measurable, deliverable things…but when that alone becomes our success criteria, we make Azteks…and we pat ourselves on the back for doing it.

Using a design approach that advocates for outcomes focused on the user, that delivers design across scale and is measured against real world results, is the tool by which we can get out of that pattern. It’s not an easy task to get to this point, but, with vigilance and adhering to the real success measures of a product, we can avoid these kinds of pitfalls.

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