Of Fatal Flaws

I’ve worked on a number of high-profile failures:

  • Lytro lightfield cameras
  • Google Glass head-mounted computer
  • Google Clips automatic photographer

They all had a fatal flaw. Everyone saw the flaw. But the culture that arose in these teams purposefully ignored the flaw.

Lytro lightfield camera

The Lytro lightfield camera made truly amazing one-shot 3D pictures from a tiny camera.

What was its flaw?

It could only take pictures of very small subjects, like sushi. For larger subjects, like people, the benefits were lost.

Yet people mostly take pictures of people!

The limitation is due to simple geometry. You need a lens roughly the same size as your subject to get the awesome 3D information. But no one can carry a camera with a meter-wide lens on vacation.

This fatal flaw stared everyone in the face for years, yet no one blinked.

The marketing team found ever more contrived photo compositions that would still eke out a little 3D effect.

The engineers went to work making cameras so big they were moved on custom-built cranes.

The PMs tried to find ever-smaller niche markets.

The culture that arose spontaneously at Lytro suppressed its fatal flaw.

Everyone knew, deep-down, that middle-school geometry doomed the design, but everyone also fervently believed that it could somehow be overcome by sheer will, or hard work, or a stroke of genius.

The theme here is that the cultures that arise around products, methods, and inventions often grow to exclude discussion of their fatal flaws, and instead find elaborate ways to paper over them… to find more and more clever ways to pretend they don’t exist.

Google Glass

Google Glass actually had two fatal flaws:

  • It didn’t really do anything very useful.
  • You looked stupid while wearing it.

The culture in the Google Glass team grew to completely ignore these flaws, too.

Huge engineering efforts were spent looking for a "killer app" for Glass — some task or situation where Glass would be indispensable.

No one inside Google ever found one, but the culture couldn’t accept its own conclusion.

They released an "Explorer Edition" with great fanfare, and invited developers everywhere to help scour the land for a killer app for Glass.

They never found one, either.

The screen was just too small, and too awkwardly-placed in the corner of your eye.

The engineers spent their days testing Glass with vapid questions like, "Ok Glass, how tall is the Eiffel Tower?" and taking phots of the potted plants on their desks.

Phone notifications are bad enough. No one wanted them on their faces, too.

Glass just wasn’t useful.

Wearing Glass also made you look stupid.

No one ever wore Glass at the office. The devices sat on our desks, plugged into USB, endlessly charging.

The team tried to paper over this flaw, too. They launched an infamous photo spread in Vogue.

Unsurprisingly (at least in retrospect) that also failed to change the reality of Glass’s fatal flaws.

The team never directly acknowledged the fatal flaws at all.

Instead, they trundled on, trying to push an ugly, useless product into a market that clearly didn’t want it.

Google Clips

Finally, I worked on yet another weird camera that had a lot of potential: Google Clips.

It was a tiny camera that you could put anywhere, and it would work as your "automatic photographer."

It would wait for smiles and good lighting, then opportunistically take photos.

It was, honestly, a great idea!

Who wouldn’t want to come home and find a whole reel of awesome photos of your friends, with no effort beyond clipping a camera to your jacket?

Of course, it also had a fatal flaw. The pictures were taken from weird vantage points.

It turns out that humans only like pictures that are taken from the perspective of other humans’ eyes.

It’s a basic feature of our psychology, and it makes perfect sense.

We don’t like the vibe of pictures taken from tabletops or backpacks or lapel pins or dog collars.

To their credit, the UX team at Clips quickly uncovered this fatal flaw. It’s almost a no-brainer, once you start actually looking at pictures taken from uncontrolled perspectives.

Was the project canceled after this fatal flaw was discovered? Of course not!

Instead, the team again tried to paper over the flaw.

They tried to add AI-based perspective correction. They tried view synthesis, so the camera could be virtually "moved" a few inches. They tried ever more elaborate (and ever more intrusive) mounting hardware.

Even those sophisticated techniques were woefully insufficient to fix the fatal flaw at its core.

Then they tried to spruce the product up with ancillary features like time lapses.

Then they brought Clips all the way to market… where it very predictably failed.

The lesson here is simply that all engineering projects develop their own cultures over time.

The cultures often grow to silence or downplay fatal flaws in the product, perhaps because it must be done to keep people marching along together.

If you notice such a fatal flaw in your own project, you’re probably not alone. Your colleagues probably notice it, too.

Yet… it may remain unspoken for years, then one day suddenly define the entire arc of your project.

In your own teams, encourage continual scrutiny of your product’s central flaws.

Encourage people to talk openly about the elephants in the room.

Build culture where people can say, "this is an unsolved problem, and we may not have a viable product if it is not solved."

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