Let’s be blunt: It’s human nature to be mesmerized by other people’s failures. Sports broadcasters and movie DVDs show us highlight reels of athlete and actor bloopers for entertainment. War documentaries hyperfocus on historic military blunders. And even in our own industry, there’s a strong sense of “schadenfreude,” the phenomenon of secretly enjoying the mistakes of others. This is hopefully only the case when a massive design failure causes just financial loss and embarrassment – versus tragic situations that lead to injuries or death.

In any case, those who seek to learn from their mistakes become better engineers and designers. And it’s far more preferable to learn these lessons from other people’s mistakes, saving yourself the aggravation (and winding up being on one of these lists).

With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at five notorious consumer product design failures and what went wrong.

1. Coolest Cooler (2014)

The Product: The Coolest Cooler is an all-in-one outdoor entertainment solution for tailgating, camping, boating, picnics, beach parties, barbecues, and anytime you’re enjoying the great outdoors. It includes a blender, bluetooth speaker, USB charger, LED light, oversized wheels, bottle opener and bungee tie down. The company initially raised $13 million from 60,000 customers pledging $165 and more for a cooler, making it the highest funded Kickstarter campaign of 2014. But 20,000 early backers had still not received their coolers two years after the promised delivery date, sparking an investigation from the Oregon Department of Justice. You can read a letter from CEO/founder Ryan Grepper to his angry customers here.

Why was this a design failure?

  • Cost of development, manufacturing and shipping each cooler was $235, far exceeding what customers pledged on Kickstarter.
  • To try to make up for the shortfall, the company began selling the cooler on Amazon for $400 with immediate availability. This caused further resentment amongst loyal Kickstarter customers, inspiring a flood of vengeful 1-star reviews on Amazon.

Lessons Learned: Great renderings and videos may help pre-sell an idea, but developing the full product and manufacturing it at necessary margins is a different ballgame and multiple times harder. Your supply chain can make or break your product. This cannot be an afterthought.

2. Google Glass (2013-2015)

The Product: Google Glass was a wearable, voice-controlled Android device that resembled a pair of eyeglasses and displayed information directly in the user's field of vision.

Why was this a design failure?

  • Consumers did not know what problems a wearable computer would solve for them and why they needed a $1,500 pair of glasses.
  • The design was not aesthetically appealing. As The Guardian put it, users of the product looked like “dorks,” the “contemporary version of those 1950s engineers who always had several pens and a propelling pencil in their top jacket pockets.”
  • There was a public backlash over privacy concerns. Because the glasses allowed wearers to clandestinely record video – unlike the obvious presence of cell phone cameras – the product made bystanders uncomfortable. Nightclub bouncers, for example, banned patrons from wearing them.
  • The same safety fears about cell phones and radio frequency radiation were magnified with Google Glass, because it was meant to be worn on your face all the time.
  • The product had significant UI and firmware issues, with no product fixes for nearly 3 years.

Lessons Learned: Technologies looking for a problem to solve have a very high probability to fail. Product designers need to solve problems that customers care about and are willing to pay to resolve. Do not fall into the “If we build it, they will come” mindset.

3. 3D Television (2010)

The Product: 3D TV was television that conveyed 3D depth perception to the viewer for special 3D-formatted programming. Experiencing the effect usually required wearing specialized plastic glasses (like the 3D movie glasses), but some TV sets offered a simulated 3D mode that could be viewed with the naked eye. Major television manufacturers such as LG, Sony and Samsung were initially on board along with some TV networks.

Why was this a design failure?

  • There was an awkward user experience with viewers wearing cheap plastic, bulky and uncomfortable 3D glasses. Eye strain and dizziness were reported by 20-25% of users. Although this may have been a tolerable tradeoff for a single movie-watching experience, it did not translate well to ongoing daily use.
  • Developers were caught in a Catch 22. Zero 3D content available at the product launch meant low TV sales. Low TV sales meant no motivation for content creators to create new content.

Lessons Learned: User experience at every touch point can make or break a product. Adding friction to the customer experience by requiring users to do more work will reduce adoption. Users do not desire products – they desire to accomplish an outcome. Customers want to do less work using your product, not more. The only exception is if doing incremental work makes them realize more benefits than before. Furthermore, designers can’t focus on just the product. The ecosystem in which their product lives also matters tremendously. Consumers now expect instant gratification and do not have the patience to wait. If your product cannot be used and enjoyed immediately, it will not win.

4. Juicero Press (2017)

The Product: The Juicero was a $400 internet-connected juicer that used single-serving packets of chopped organic fruits and vegetables sold exclusively by the company by subscription. The company, which targeted restaurants and health food enthusiasts, raised $120 million in investments and shut down 6 months after launch.

Why was this a design failure?

  • The over-engineered device, which included 400 custom parts and delivered 4 tons of force, could be replicated by simply squeezing the fruit and vegetable packets by hand. Given this, the juice press was redundant and unnecessary, quickly shifting from a Silicon Valley darling to a social media laughingstock.
  • It was an overly complex solution to a simple problem. Does a juice machine truly need to be connected to the internet?
  • Juicero was a pricey appliance, requiring an initial $400 investment, plus $5-8 for a single juice packet. That did not compare favorably to the cost-per-serving at a trendy juice bar.

Lessons Learned: Juicero remains a cautionary tale for all product designers. Successful innovation is not about creating solutions in search of a problem. Seek “simple” solutions for even “complex” problems.

5. Microsoft Zune (2006-2012)

The Product: The Zune was a portable digital music player from Microsoft launched as a competitor to the Apple iPod.

Why was this a design failure?

  • Too late to the party: Microsoft launched the Zune five years after the Apple iPod established itself as the dominant market leader.
  • The Zune had no unique or innovative differentiation compared to the iPod. It did not solve any problems that iPod was not already solving. As Robbie Bach, the former head of Microsoft’s home entertainment unit, later admitted, the Zune “wasn’t a bad product, but it was still a chasing product, and there wasn’t a reason for somebody to say, ‘Oh, I have to go out and get that thing.’”
  • The Zune was also a casualty of insufficient marketing, though this could not have made much of a difference given the lack of product differentiation. “We did some really artsy ads that appealed to a very small segment of the music space,” recalled Bach, “and we didn’t captivate the broad segment of music listeners.”

Lessons Learned: Products must have a clear and unique product differentiation. “Me too” products will not succeed if there is a well-established market leader. Changing consumer behavior or making them switch products is hard. They need a compelling reason and benefits to make the switch. Throwing marketing dollars behind a flawed product usually is the equivalent of flushing money down the toilet.

So there you have it: A rubber-necked stroll of some of the biggest consumer product design disasters of the recent past. It’s easy to point fingers and find scapegoats after the fact. The truth is that we’re all at risk of being blinded by our own brilliance. Even the cleverest product ideas executed by the most talented engineers are destined to fail if manufacturing, marketing, sales and product distribution challenges aren’t considered from the very beginning.

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