Decoding Design

Recasting failures as 'data' is key when designing new products

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Embrace mistakes and missteps, suggests Tina Seelig, executive director of Stanford University's Technology Ventures Program--because failure offers information that leads to improved products.

Start-ups and corporations seeking to create the next profitable, innovative product should rethink their attitudes toward failure, suggests Tina Seelig, the executive director of Stanford University’s Technology Ventures Program. The program supports entrepreneurship at Stanford's School of Engineering.

“There’s a huge problem with the word failure,” Seelig said in an interview with Karen A. Frankel published on the Web site of the Association for Computing Machinery on April 17. “As a scientist, when I do an experiment that doesn't work as I expected, what do I call it? Data. It’s not a failure."

Having earned a Ph.D from Stanford University's School of Medicine, Seelig was trained in neuroscience. Currently, beyond directing the Technology Ventures Program, she teaches a class on innovation at Stanford and is the author of a new book, InGenius: A Crash Course of Creativity.

"In fact, some of the most interesting scientific research comes from experiments that have unexpected results. The key is to look at the things that don’t come out as expected as data that provides interesting clues to what is really happening. If you are afraid of failure, you won’t try anything new," Seelig said.

She believes learning from missteps is an important part of the innovation process. In her class, she asks students to write "failure resumes." These help budding entrepreneurs and executives accept their mistakes and re-cast them as part of the creation process.

Seelig points to the founders of Instagram, the photo sharing site acquired by Facebook last week for $1 billion (in cash and stock), as applying another key factor in successful new product development: deep and diverse knowledge.

"They are engineers and could not have created their product without knowing how to build it. Scaling Instagram was a complicated technical problem. When they hit challenging problems, they had to continue to build their knowledge to provide them with the tools to address the challenges," Seelig said of Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, Instagram's founders.

“To be creative you must have a depth of knowledge as a starting point. It doesn’t have to be a direct match with the problems you are trying to solve. In fact, some of the most interesting innovations come from those outside of a particular domain.”

In the interview, Seelig also said that working with "constraints" -- scant resources of time and money--as a way to push forward new ideas. Obviously, companies need to be imaginative if they don't have a lot of capital and are facing quick deadlines. But Seelig also points out that such an approach can also force a product to market quickly. The faster to market, the faster customer feedback can be gathered and the used to improve the product--no matter how imperfect it might be.

If all of these ideas sound familiar to designers reading this post, it could be because some of the recommendations echo the practice of design. Improving on missteps (or "failures") can be understood as the act of iteration. Getting customer feedback early and often echoes consumer research. Seeking broad knowledge from a variety of domains suggests the interdisciplinary approach that many designers take when working on fresh product ideas. Although Seelig didn't use the "d" word in the interview, her ideas on creativity and product innovation seem to support the idea that design thinkers are valuable in the business world.

Image: Silicon Valley Blog/Flickr

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure