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Innovation by Design: When Bad Designs Lead To Failed Innovations

Innovation is a process. It’s not just an idea that turns into a revolutionary product and changes the world. It takes work, trial and error, and most of all, design. Design can be the difference between a product, service, or experience that alters the way people live, and something that is forgott

Phil McKinney
Phil McKinney
4 min read
Innovation by Design: When Bad Designs Lead To Failed Innovations

Innovation is a process. It’s not just an idea that turns into a revolutionary product and changes the world. It takes work, trial and error, and most of all, design.

If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.

Abraham Maslow

Design can be the difference between a product, service, or experience that alters the way people live, and something that is forgotten quicker than it took to develop. And a lack of design is precisely what some companies forget to implement when they have an innovative idea, leading to a failed innovation.

This type of bad design has led to some of the biggest product flops in the last few decades.


Microsoft’s Zune was their answer to Apple’s iPod. And this is precisely where the failure started. The Zune was a response, an attempt to keep up with Apple. And it was obvious. The device was simply too little, too late. While the iPod was released in 2001, accompanied by a strong iTunes media service, the Zune wasn’t released until 2004.

When the device was released, the reception looked promising. It jumped to the second-most-sold in the portable media device arena, capturing nearly 10 percent of the market share. But this success did not last long.

A measly seven years later, Microsoft pulled the device. It was simply causing too many problems and was not capturing interest in the market. As previously mentioned, one of the reasons it became such a flop was its tardiness to the market.

However, the overarching reason for failure was not the product in and of itself. The market needed a competitor to the iPod, it wanted one and the Zune could have been a great one—if it had been put through an effective design process.

One very important aspect of any product or service design process is the marketing and advertising. If there is a lack of clarity in the process, the marketing team will have a difficult time preparing quality campaigns. And this is exactly what happened with the Zune. The marketing team did not have a clear picture of what the device was for. They geared their campaigns toward a far-too specific audience with very artsy advertisements, and missed out on the broader audience of music listeners.

Another major design process failure that Microsoft made in designing the Zune was that they failed to bring others in. More specifically, the music industry. In order to make the Zune successful, Microsoft should have partnered more closely with the music industry to make them see how having competing devices and multiple music player and purchasing platforms would provide them with more leverage in the long-run. They neglected to do this, though, resulting in many of the Zune features, that could have been previously negotiated, being blocked.


Google has been attempting to enter into the social networking market for years now. Google+ is their fourth attempt. Launched in 2011, the social networking platform had a surprisingly impressive start.

After a year, Google reported that their active membership had reached nearly 100 million. And a few years after that, Google claimed that this number had surpassed half a billion. However, these numbers have turned out to be a little deceptive.

Google transformed Google+ into more of a way to connect all of Google’s services, like YouTube and GMail. Because of this, users of any service would automatically be signed up for a Google+ account, even though they never actually used the service. And the service itself failed to ever catch on.

So why did Google+ fail? It was a great product. When it comes to connecting people, it surpassed the potential of any other social networking sites. Users were able to connect all of their Google accounts and have everything in the same place.

It also had more advanced features when it came to posting pictures, grouping friends, and more. Unfortunately, its main downfall was that it did not embrace its own design enough. Its original design was simple, sleek, functional, and user-friendly. But then it made the mistake of both being later to the market than other social networking platforms like Facebook and Twitter, as well as trying to duplicate what those platforms were doing.

A product can not be innovative if it is merely a replication.


Segway was launched in 2001. Due to details of the personal transporter being released prior to the actual product released, there was significant speculation and hype. Comments were thrown around about it being more important than the internet, or at least just as important as the personal computer. But for one very important reason, the Segway never managed to catch on: a thorough and complete design process was not followed.

The main step of the design process that the makers of Segway forgot to spend time on was feasibility. Countries have laws when it comes to motorized and wheeled vehicles, and Segway did not do their due diligence in adjusting the vehicle to those laws or attempting to alter legislation to provide some more wiggle room when using the Segway.

Instead, it became far too difficult for buyers of the product to use it in the way that they wanted, so consumers just stopped buying it. Now, the main market for the product is security companies, police departments, and tour groups.

Innovation by design doesn’t happen on it’s own. It requires a concerted effort throughout your entire organization and creation of a clear innovation process. To learn how you can start innovating by design in your business, check out how I and my team can help.

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Phil McKinney is an innovator, podcaster, author, and speaker. He is the retired CTO of HP. Phil's book, Beyond The Obvious, shares his expertise and lessons learned on innovation and creativity.


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