We All Need to Fail: Iterative Design

Photo: Pavel Danilyuk

Do you remember the first time you rode a bicycle?

Here’s a scenario, let’s say you tried to ride your bike nine times but kept falling off. However, on the tenth try, you maintain your balance and ride the bike down the street. A teacher grades your experience in this scenario: one out of ten successful attempts, a failing grade of 10%. Despite developing the necessary skills to ride the bike successfully, you are now forever labeled a failure.

I frequently hear my media art students complain about the test they just failed in another class and the fear of their parents reacting with strict punishments. They act as if failing an exam brand the teenager as a life failure. Failure should be something worth celebrating, and it’s evidence that learning is happening. 

Failure is not the end. Instead, it’s the beginning of real change. People need to fail to develop new methods, new perspectives and truly build understanding.

Failure is Necessary

History reminds us how failure transforms into success.

  • The failure of multiple Polio vaccination attempts ultimately leads to the eradication of the disease. 
  • The failure of numerous lunar missions leads to the successful landing of Apollo 11. 
  • The failure of Steve Jobs transformed Apple into a major success.

Many other people still use failure to their advantage, including artists, filmmakers, web designers, and teachers. This practice is called iterative design, the art of failing a task, reflecting on progress, developing new strategies, and redesigning experiences to adapt, adjust, and overcome setbacks. Each version of the process becomes closer to solving the initial problem. 

Iterative design features five significant steps:

  1. Planning- What is the problem? 
  2. Prototype- What is needed to develop a solution?
  3. Testing- Will this solution fix the problem?
  4. Evaluation- What does the data tell us about our solution?
  5. Repeat the Process- Did our solution solve the problem?

Focusing on the User

Failure organically informs the next step during the iterative design process, and if you’re not failing, you’re doing this process wrong. One of the most common failures with the iterative design process is failing to recognize the people affected by the problem. Many people tend to focus on solutions for the issue and neglect a key component: the user.

For example, a team redesigning a website should not focus on the site’s aesthetic makeup but instead on the people using the website. By focusing on the behaviors and interests of their users, the iterative design process can provide the team with essential information that informs their web redevelopment.

The iterative design process reminds me of the tech giant Apple. Researchers at Apple frequently research their user base and center all decisions based on the user. I would love to be a fly on the wall when Apple reveals how their solutions have failed their users.  I often ask myself, “How many times did Apple fail when producing the iPhone?” I also wonder: “Why didn’t they stop producing iPhones when they created the first Apple iPhone? Why did the company deliver more than 15 improved versions of the same phone?” 

Embrace Failure

The next time a problem presents itself, get back on that bicycle, and embrace failure. Use the iterative design process to learn from your failure, and have your failure fuel your success.

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