Designing for Failure

As designers, our priority is to create a smooth user journey through anything we create. But devoting all attention towards designing for a successful scenario leads to a half done job. To design a superior experience for the user, one must look with an birds eye view at the system to find all points of failure.

What does it mean to design for failure?

What will happen when a user faces a situation where he tries to attempt something that has yet to be factored into the design, or try to use something ‘wrong’? No human is perfect and it would be unpractical of us to assume a user journey through any given process we design occurs without any hiccups.

Anticipating every point of failure when designing a system is quite a difficult task. Success has one route, the ideal route. Considering humans (realistically) are imperfect and unpredictable, designing for failure is costly and difficult. If one succeeds, the system will be much more efficient and relatable. Further, the amount of iterations necessary will decrease. If one fails, costs of research and development and opportunity costs of repurposing an existing product line will increase.

What are the solutions to design in this manner?

Instead of trying our hand at predicting the failures themselves, we can try other tactics that will be beneficial in the long run. Why not try to create systems where we can iteratively gain more insights into failure scenarios? For example, imagine a 404 error message not as the worst case scenario, but as an opportunity to gain vital feedback from the user as to how and why they ended up there.

Solutions to these problems are quite simple, so why don’t we ask users themselves why they happened? A great application that utilizes user feedback is Sketch. At the moment an individual reopens it after it unexpectedly crashes, Sketch asks the individual what was happening. This makes the user go from feeling frustrated to feeling heard, creating a personalised experience for a user and earn you brownie points on accountability. Although definitely a step in the right direction, focusing on catching these individual solutions is only a small part of the bigger picture.

What is the advantage of designing this way?

The 404 dead end is one pin on a “map” that we must create of end-to-end user journeys through our systems. By marking every point where a user encounters a crossroads on a map, we understand the failures that occurred, keep track of where they occurred, and understand with what frequency they occurred. This simple aerial view helps designers get a full picture of the failure scenarios in the system, and start to understand how to create more meaningful experiences.

As the creators of the system, it may seem difficult to find these failure scenarios ourselves. Instead of acknowledging these failure scenarios exist, avoiding them is the easy way out; however, recognising failures is an important step towards solving them. Listening to what our users have to say about encounters with these scenarios can very well work to our advantage in the long run. Managing where failure scenarios in cross-functional, end-to-end experiences occurs is especially important today, where possible interaction points for customers with our systems is infinite. The capability of the designer to put himself in the shoes of the user then becomes an integral part of providing a wholesome experience.

— Shana Singh and Akshitha Praveen, Experience Designers, Redd Experience Design