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Design Projects: Why They Fail & How to Scale

Why do good designs fail? It’s a question that plagues designers across every discipline and skill level. Even seasoned professionals, CMOs, and major companies with years of experience and brand history sometimes have to admit that an otherwise appealing design isn’t having the impact they expected it to have.

Most of the time a thoughtful and inventive design fails, it’s because of the way it’s implemented. Sometimes it may be incredibly successful in test stages and fall flat as more people use it. Understanding how to scale projects without imposing expectations and conditions from the earliest test groups will greatly reduce the risk of project failure.

Whether you’re a stakeholder frustrated with a gap between business goals and the design of a project or a designer eager to continue producing your best work, read through this guide to find out some of the most common reasons design fails and how you can expand your projects to a higher level when they are successful.

7 Integral Principles of Good Design

People spend a lot of time discussing what separates good and bad design. Modern design thinking tends to center the user – UX/UI design, product design, and graphic design are all geared toward creating an enticing experience that’s uniform for all users and resolves one or more issues for them.

A worrying trend is for designers to focus on this user-centric approach to the point that it’s diametrically opposed to the business goals that are of such great concern to stakeholders. It’s not only that growth and accounting aren’t mutually exclusive with good design. They make for more grounded products that are profoundly more appealing for users and lucrative for stakeholders.

Strong, useful design blends both concerns by adhering to the following principles in some fashion:

1- Concentrate On Real Users

We each have our own biases and opinions and these can sometimes interfere with the design process. The assignment is never to design what you need or what you think people need. Rather, it’s to find out what people evidently need and design to accomplish that purpose.

The research stage might be the hardest one for stakeholders and other non-creatives to understand the value of, but it’s also the most critical because it provides an opportunity to hear from real users and see how they truly use the product.

Don’t take the users’ word for it, either. Trace their actions with software and compile evidence of their actual behavior. A composite of this information will allow the design team to solve problems the users may not even be aware of.

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User research is imperative for effective design work.

2- Build Intuitively

In the early days of the internet, there were far fewer design conventions. People were mostly copying what they’d learned designing layouts and graphics for print media. Since then, though, users have come to expect that their digital products will behave in certain ways.

Two of the most common examples are swiping and pinching to navigate a page and zoom, respectively. Before the advent of touchscreen technology and smartphones, these movements weren’t a given. But now, people expect these two motions to have the same effect across the board.

So that intuition is in some ways derived from the way we already use technology. For unique functions and new design features, the novelty shouldn’t make the product difficult to use. If you want to build live updates into a delivery app, for example, you should put it somewhere the user will naturally look, like the confirmation screen.

3- Be Consistent

Whether this is the company’s first product or the latest in a long line of releases, you must make sure that everything feels like it’s part of the same family. Even if your design does work well, the user should be linking that good design back to the company overall. All the better for the company if the user is also drawn to other products.

A large part of this consistency can be achieved through strong branding. Writing out a style guide for the whole company will ensure that the logo, slogan, and other proprietary designs are used the right way in every situation.

Certain design features can also be used to create an identity. Something as small as the shape and function of buttons on a website can grow to symbolize the company and its brand. Once you build up a reputation, people will be seeking out your products – old and new – for the appealing features they link with the brand.

4- Draw a Map

For both websites and apps, people should be able to navigate their way through with ease. That goes in every direction – not only do people need to intuitively understand how to get from a homepage to the final purchase button, but they also need to be able to go back and review, change selections, or correct mistakes.

This is why sitemaps and other UX deliverables play such a huge role in the design process of successful companies. User journeys, flows, and wireframes all help illustrate how the final product will look and how people will experience it.

Part of this navigation is just intuition. The back and home buttons are both in the top left corner on almost every design. But other features should be in a place that makes sense without making the whole product look cluttered or slowing everything down.

5- Appeal to Emotions

A key aspect of design thinking is the emotional appeal to users. It should be clear that the company and its designers understand the mood and context that most people use their products in.

You don’t want to have graphic images on a health insurance website just like you wouldn’t appreciate commentary on the late hour when you’re ordering fast food delivery. However, users do appreciate a sense of humor when the setting is appropriate. Alluding to the munchies or the panicked expectation of a huge hospital bill might be appropriate in our earlier scenarios.

Whatever product you’re designing, the emotions people experience when using it are what they’re going to remember most. They might not remember specific functions you’ve built into the website, but they will remember how it felt to use the product or service.

6- Limit Options

The user will have a much better time if they’re in control of the product they’re using, but if you give them too many options they may well abandon the design completely. If you think about streaming sites, most of them have done a great job of limiting information to prevent user overload. Even if there are thousands or millions of choices, categories and segregated menus help the user from feeling overwhelmed.

It never hurts to build graphics that illustrate how many choices or options are possible, but the user shouldn’t be faced with every option all at once. Imagine going into a restaurant and seeing every single plate when it comes time to place an order. Indecision and an overabundance of options are some of the main reasons people leave a design.

Most importantly, if the central goal of the company is a purchase or subscription button, your design should make that feel like the most logical option. Even if there are a few different models for how the purchase can work, initiating the process should feel like the right choice. Users are savvier now than ever before and they expect designs to be upfront about what they’re aiming at and how users can oblige.

7- Test Everything

User research is important during every iteration of a design project. It’s not only so designers can see how people behave. They also need to know if there’s a possibility that the design can break down during use.

Try as we might, it can be difficult to anticipate all the ways people will put designs to use. Somehow, users will find a way to break things if the option exists at all. Many designers build error messages that have a sense of humor into their designs to prevent a visible glitch.

Making sure people can undo possible errors very quickly is a good way to make sure they don’t abandon the design entirely if something goes awry. Putting the design to the test at every iteration – and especially close to the end – helps designers and stakeholders see how people engage with the product and anticipate where they might run into trouble.

How to Scale Projects

Scaling design projects is a challenge. Even if they appear to work wonders in the testing or initial launch phase, applying the design on a larger scale might expose problems that weren’t apparent before.

If you want to know how to scale projects successfully, you have to be open to the idea that the original designers may not have been as omniscient as it appeared. Ego gets in the way of many designs at large and small companies.

Just like users always seem to find a way to break designs if the option exists, they’ll also explore every way to use products to accomplish their goals. Curiosity is natural in humans.

There are as many ways to think about things as there are people thinking about them. It would be a shame to limit a design because of limited foresight on the part of the design team.

For example, you might have a new feature built into an app that’s effective and enjoyable for the test group. When you expand it to a wider audience, you may find that what was intuitive for the test group isn’t readily understandable for all users of the product. In such a case, it will help to understand the nature of test groups.

Test Groups & Scaling Design Projects

Selecting the people who test your design is just as important as testing at every iteration. People who volunteer for test groups likely take more initiative than the average user of a given product, which is something you should be aware of when finding participants in studies.

They could also be more likely to nitpick, which is ideal even if it’s stressful for designers. Occasionally participants may be overly forgiving because they see the design is still in the development phase. There’s a fine line between spending too much time making a test iteration look finished and giving the sample users enough information to effectively test the design.

Moving on from one test group to another helps get additional perspective on a design. However, it also widens the risk of selecting unhelpful participants. Another danger is selecting many of the same types of people who will give the same reviews and negatively affect the broad appeal of a design.

Scaling With Creative Project Management

Projects can fail for a variety of reasons. Here are a few considerations you should make to scale your projects with creative project management:

  • Budget

It all comes down to money in business. Even the best design thinking will still be limited if there isn’t money to build it out and expand it. As with other areas of both design thinking and creative project management, planning is key.

Make sure you have the budget to both expand the design and accommodate unseen speed bumps. If you can get people to participate in the rollout of a design for free, that’s great. But also bear in mind that giving them limited resources to test or use the design could limit how effective the design is.

  • Plan for Next Year

Creative project management isn’t only planning for the direct rollout. Designers and other stakeholders need to address present-day business goals as well as probable goals for the next quarter and next year. Scaling is all about widening the scope of the project, but how will your goals change if the right scale is reached?

Setting a plan might sound like an obvious creative project management strategy, but many teams overlook this stage. It can make traps out of things that should have been beneficial or easy to overcome.

  • Give Ownership

Scaling a design project is difficult because people often use the design in unexpected ways, remain attached to old or different designs, or even reject new ideas. On some occasions, this is because the designers didn’t build an accurate image of the real users. But other times, it’s due to a restrictive design.

The most appealing designs are versatile enough for users to not only have emotional attachments but also for the user to feel that they have ownership. Of course, they won’t feel like they’re responsible for the design, but it is possible to feel that the implementation of the design is their idea.

  • Identify Opportunity Domains

“Opportunity domain” is a fairly vague term of art in creative project management. It’s used to describe unmet desires that are adjacent to current business practices. There is also “white space,” which is an umbrella term for opportunity domains that are outside the possible scope of the business.

Designers and stakeholders can communicate and brainstorm new opportunity domains at any stage of the project. Scaling design projects without doing so is much more difficult. But opportunity domains are their own realm within the larger planning process because they allow the team to shape the project at any stage.

  • Center Business Goals

User-centric design is in vogue for good reason – it works better and people like it more. But designers occasionally center the user at the expense of business goals. Remember that the purpose of design in the business world is to accomplish what the business sets out to do.

For many designers, the problem is that stakeholders and management might place too much emphasis on the bottom line and make profit seem like the only motive. In a strict definition of for-profit businesses, making money is definitely important. But businesses also set out to provide products and services that satisfy their customers.

Understanding how to scale projects requires a thorough understanding of what the business provides that people find useful. Accounting for business goals in this context build better designs that help people more. The more useful the design, the easier scaling design projects becomes.

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Detailed advanced planning makes success much more likely.


Understanding why a project is failing is challenging. Scaling design projects when they are successful leads many businesses to think the design isn’t working when the problem is actually within the scaling process. The tips in this guide should help creative teams of all sizes identify flaws in their projects and bring products to a larger audience without issue.

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