Why Government Programs Often Fail: by James Eaves

Obamacare is just the most recent example of government “solutions” that do more harm than good.

Though programs championed by Democrats are continuously characterized by Republicans as failures, you’d be hard-pressed to identify a program implemented by Republicans that’s performed well (consider the “War on Terror”, the “War on Drugs”, ethonol subsidies, No-Child-Left behind…). I think the main reason for all this failure (and the toxicity of our political dialog in general) is that it’s too easy for the architects of public policy to ignore the principles of good product design.

Great Product Designers Abandon Their Ego

It’s easier to see this by first considering examples of great products.  My current favorite product is my Sonos digital stereo system.  If I ask myself how that product makes me feel, some words that come to mind are: relief (it’s incredibly easy to install and it’s features seem intuitive and familiar.); limitless (there seems no limit to what I can listen to.); discovery (I’m constantly discovering and rediscovering music.); excitement (I’m excited to turn it on when I get home.); and “love”.

How is it that the Sonos designer was so successful?  He or she understood my music needs and goals better than I do.  That is the only way we can design something that dramatically improves another person’s life.  The Sonos designer knew me so well that the company didn’t even have to sell the system to me: a friend introduced it to me, I’ve introduced it to 5 friends since, and now I’m writing about it to you with a big smile on my face.  People don’t need to be convinced to buy a great product – it spreads like a happiness virus, as does its users’ positive feelings.  It’s incredible what a great product can do to a community.

How is it possible to design products like this? The secret is empathy.  You have to develop deep empathy for another person so that you can see their experience through their eyes.

IDEO is one of the world’s greatest design firms.  Before they design anything, they spend weeks observing their customers, listening to their stories, and immersing themselves in their customers’ experiences.  The goal is to learn who these people are, what they dream about, what scares them, what they want, and what they need.  Great product design is not about technology, art, or genius. It’s about empathy.

And it works. You use IDEO’s products everyday. Among many other things, they designed the first computer mouse, laptop, the first toothbrush with a fat handle, and the first stand-up toothpaste tube.

The Darkside of Product Design

The catch is that humans are naturally bad designers. We instinctively approach design from an arrogant, egotistical perspective.  Great designers have to use rules and methods to counter this instinct. The bad designer sees a customer but does not take the time to know them.  Then the designer develops a “brilliant” product and expects a customer to embrace it.  The problem is the customer and their environment is far too complex for the bad designer to correctly infer the customer’s needs and desires. So the customer rejects the product.  But the designer loves the product, not the person, so he blames the person for not understanding, for being ignorant about how the product will improve their lives.  “They just need to learn.” So, the bad designer sells harder, offers incentives, hires movie stars to use it…  The customer rejects it.

Fortunately, at some point, the designer is forced to face the humbling reality that his vision is not the right one.  A customer’s freedom to reject the product is a natural check on the designer’s arrogance.  But failure is the fuel of progress – the faster and more often the designer accepts his fail and tries again, the faster he realizes a truly innovative design.

It’s too easy for the government to ignore good design principles.

The reason so many solutions implemented by government are products of bad design is that government can force people to buy products. It’s as simple as that. My point is not to argue whether or not government force is necessary for managing a society.  But the implication of that power is that policy architects are much more likely to skip the frustrating, time-consuming, humbling step of abandoning their egos to develop deep empathy for their customer.

Well-intentioned people are trying to find solutions for complex problems related to things like the environment, energy, healthcare and education.  And most of the time, the policy designer is led by their ego, not by deep empathy: they know what’s best for the country and impose the solution. Inevitably many people don’t see it that way.  Those people struggle, feel violated, and instead of spreading happiness-viruses, we spread anger and resentment through our communities.

The left does it.  The right does it.  Over time the feelings of resentment have accumulated. Both sides are so traumatized by the violence that anything resembling an opposing viewpoint is revolting.  That’s why the political environment in Washington and our neighborhoods has become so toxic and unproductive.

This is not a recipe for a sustainable society, so in the end good design principles will prevail.

The Light Side of Product Design

We are duped into thinking there is only force. It will come from either the left or the right so we need to pick a side and fight.  But, there is another choice – Up.  Be IDEO.  Upists don’t start by imagining a “brilliant” solution. They start by building deep empathy for the people they want to help. Upists challenge themselves to design a product or policy that so great that people will embrace it voluntarily and it will spread like a happiness-virus.  Upists embrace failure because it’s part of the learning process – it’s productive (Mr. President) to say you were wrong, learn from it, and start over.  Consequently, it’s critical (members of Congress) to foster an environment that embraces failure, so people won’t be afraid to admit failure.

In an Upist’s world we will see fewer one-size-fits-all solutions because the world is full of diversity.  Diversity is beautiful. Diverse ecosystems are sustainable ecosystems. Good design principles create beautiful, sustainable communities.

Dick Haymes just started streaming on my Sonos. I can’t believe it…Dick Haymes.

James Eaves (tweet @startupfuze) is an Associate Professor at Laval University, the Co-Founder of StartupFuze – an intense 4-week startup program, and does product design for PetalMD, Canada’s fastest growing productivity-network for doctors.