Posted by: rolfsky | December 15, 2009

designed for maximum fail


One of the design practices I employ is to assume I am working for evil rather than good.

I sit down and I ask myself, “what if I really wanted this to fail, how would I sabotage it?”

There’s many ways you can intentionally wreak havoc on a project:

  • pollute data sources with useless keywords
  • bury the search results
  • deliberately create poor documentation for your successor
  • make help text nearly invisible
  • create inconsistent, unfathomable options
  • do nothing while I see problems arise
  • make it impossible for users to give you feedback

Thinking like this gives me the vision of an outsider, a skeptic even perhaps. It works because the skeptic’s viewpoint isn’t clouded by all the justifications you’ve made for inconsistencies that leaked into the final product.

Design is a conscious action, where these pieces have been designed via inaction.

Individually, these unintentional results aren’t exactly evil, but merely middle-of-the-road annoying or too-hard-to-fix-right-now. The big problem here is when a choice made by inaction or inattention results in the same decision as if the choice were made to maximize maliciousness.

If “doing nothing” results in the same as “being evil”, you’d better do something.

You can apply this to anything in your life – from your next PowerPoint, to your current relationship:

  • if I were stupid/ignorant/unprofessional, how would I design this slide?” <—OK, don’t do any of those things.
  • if I wanted her to think I was ignoring her, how I would achieve that?” <—OK, you’d better say something to her or buy some flowers.
  • “if I wanted it to look like I didn’t care about this job, what would I do?” <—probably time to break out the razor, put on a belt, and polish the shoes.

In all the cases above, there’s nothing wrong with the way that you were doing it before, but you may be giving the inadvertent impression that you are lazy, stupid, or even actively sabotaging the success of your project.

A proactive way to look at this is to ask yourself, “if I were a saboteur, where would I attack this for the greatest impact?” Whatever you come up with are the top things you should be making sure don’t happen.


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