Things either work or they don’t.

For customers there really is no middle ground.  The question is why there are so many products that don’t. 

In theory, it seems simple enough.  The Balridge Performance Excellence Program is dedicated to improving the competitiveness and performance of U.S. organizations. They define product performance as “performance relative to measures and indicators of product and service characteristics important to customers. Examples include product reliability, on-time delivery, customer-experienced defect levels, and service response time.”

Yet, most experts agree that over 90% of most new products fail.  Sometimes the product is poorly marketed.  Other times, it is a brand extension that is so far afield of the root brand that potential buyers are confused.  But usually, it is just because the product doesn’t do what the customer needed it to do in the first place.


There’s a place where products that just didn’t perform end up.  It’s kind of the graveyard for product flops.  Aptly called The Museum of Failed Products in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the museum houses thousands of losers, many from some of the biggest enterprises in the world.  In his book, The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman explains why he believes so many failed products line the shelves at the museum.

“Each one must have made it through a series of meetings at which nobody realized that the product was doomed. Perhaps nobody wanted to contemplate the prospect of failure; perhaps someone did but didn’t want to bring it up for discussion. Even if they realize where things are headed, there’s a perverse incentive for marketers to plough more money into a lemon: that way, they can force some sales and preserve their dignity. By the time the truth becomes obvious, the original developers will have moved to other products, or other firms. Little energy will have been invested in discovering what went wrong; everyone involved will have conspired, perhaps without realizing what they’re doing, never to speak of it again.”

It seems that many of these products made it through their company R&D pipeline with little thought, much less consultation with actual potential customers.  Who could forget classic brand mash ups like Ben Gay Aspirin?  Clairol’s Touch of Yogurt Shampoo?  Coors Rocky Mountain Spring Water?  Bic Underwear?  In hindsight, these are colossally bad, even foolish ideas for products.  Is the idea of shampooing with yogurt any better than if we had something called Shell Oil Cologne?  (To my knowledge, no such product exists.)   Thankfully, the marketplace put these pathetic products out of their misery without much fanfare.  I’ve studied many of these dud’s overs the years. My favorite failure is still Colgate Kitchen Entrees.  Yes, what a perfectly delightful combination; toothpaste and dinner!  Some geniuses at Colgate Palmolive decided the world needed yet another line of frozen meals.  Kitchen Entrees set a new low for brand extensions. The product was a complete disaster because customers could see no valid connection.

How Does This Happen?

What drove management forward on these incredibly bad product ideas?  Were they dreamed up in some kind of stream of consciousness brainstorming session?  Someone in authority had to approve the idea, fork out the money for testing, prototyping, production, and marketing.  How does this happen?

“Hardly a day goes by that we don’t see an announcement for some new product or technology that is going to make our lives easier, solve some or all of our problems, or simply make the world a better place,” designer Bill Buxton writes in his book, Sketching User Experience.  “Few of these products survive, much less deliver on their typically over-hyped promise.” 

Buxton, and great designers like him, believe that there is no design context.  “To design a tool, we must understand the larger physical, social, and psychological context in which it will be used. And that’s something designers are trained to do,” he says.

This means simply that when companies ignore the human side of product performance, they are setting themselves up for failure.  Customer focused design is the key to performance.  What’s the point of creating bizarre new product combinations or adding meaningless bells and whistles if the ultimate buyer could care less?  If they are happy with the products they are currently using, it’s doubtful they will suddenly be struck by lightning to switch to a new product.  In fact, most companies, even conservative ones, wildly overestimate the success their new offering will have in the market.

It’s clear that companies need to have a clearer path to understand what performance criteria their customers expect.   Better design must be present in products, services, and experiences.