Feedback’s Double Edge

Christian Briggs and I were recently discussing the role of feedback (i.e. focus groups, formative and summative evaluations, etc.) in the design process – specifically how it can be a real double-edged sword when you’re developing an original idea. While there’s undeniable value in having your work evaluated from a fresh perspective, there’s also the chance that the perspectives of reviewers untuned to the unique vision being pursued might dilute or divert you away from it. The real key is to be lucky enough to get your feedback from people who truly “get” what you are trying to do. Which reminds me of a game design story …

I remember reading a while back about how Will Wright and a friend spent four years developing SimCity in their spare time, while Wright was working at a videogame arcade. Once it was done, they showed it to various game publishers, none of whom “got it”, and all of whom turned it down. Many also offered various suggestions as to how the game could be “improved” to look more like games already on the market. Instead of taking the bait, Wright and his buddy establish their own publishing company, Maxis, to publish SimCity themselves. Of course, it was a huge hit, which EA later picked up, along with Maxis a bit later still, and Wright became The Will Wright. One can only imagine how innovative SimCity would have been had Wright taken that feedback to heart. Chapter Two is even better. Apparently, at EA-Maxis, Wright would regularly pitch a sort of “interior design simulator” idea that he called the “Doll House”, which was shot down every time. After more than a decade of overseeing the churn of the various SimSomething-franchise derivatives, Wright decided to make his game anyway. The EA-Maxis management ridiculed it, focus groups consistently hated it, and when it was finally released in 2001 as The Sims, it quickly became the best selling computer game of all time. Looking back, Wright would comment to the effect that focus groups generally don’t like anything that they don’t recognize and were a great tool for designing games that look like what’s already out there.


  1. houssian

    I had never heard the second part of that story with the Sims. Too bad Will didn’t go out and form his own company again, he could have gotten even richer! I guess I (nor him) won’t cry over that too much.
    Not only were there all the spin-offs of SimCity (a game I grew up playing and LOVED), but it almost defined a new genre.

    So to the idea of participatory design or feedback or focus groups or whatever with original innovative ideas, yes it’s really hard. I guess that you need to really stick it out until you have a really good working prototype and you can not just explain it, but let them play it (or use it if not a game). Sometimes even that is not enough, a little play time or using a product at a lab is sometimes not enough. I can think of countless products that almost didn’t get made because it didn’t do well in initial testing, only to be a big hit after people got that item home where it made a serious difference in they way they lived/worked/played. It was transformative (or computer imaginative as thatMarty likes to call it).

    So how does one embrace participatory design in this kind of situation? Or even better… should you?

  2. chmbrigg

    I can’t seem to remember where i wrote about the concept, but i’m beginning to see a pattern in revolutionary design (as opposed to evolutionary), where it is necessary to have at least one “delusional design” guru on a team that will design and/or push a concept that the rest of the team thinks isn’t good. Delusion here refers to someone who holds to “belief regarding the self or persons or objects outside the self that is maintained despite indisputable evidence to the contrary.”

    I don’t think it would work to have an entire team of these folks, but the best teams seem to have at least one. Examples of delusional designers: Thomas Edison and the Dyson Vacuum guy, among others whom i can’t recall at 1am.

    If the mission comes to completion some day, for example, and small business becomes a deeply customer-participatory endeavor as a result, i will add myself to the list. In the case of our idea, there have been quite a few folks who have thought it a stupid idea, but something in the research i’ve done of the present culture as well as the trajectory of american business and democracy for the last 250-or-so years tells me that we’re on the right path to our own SIMS story (or perhaps to failure, of course, which is fine with me). In the spirit of Argyris and Schoen (i think they would agree with this), the best way to figure out a problem (especially as an organization) is seems to be to do it in-situ, so long as one has in-place the continual practice of deep reflection (or in the case of Argyris/Schoen double-loop learning) so that the end of the endeavor is not reached prior to positive changes in direction.

    One way to ensure that a whole group (like a design group or a company) doesn’t _all_ go down unprofitable paths might be to turn loose the delusional designers as probes that push the boundaries and report back.

    It seems to me that “delusional design” is, in fact like the fine line between genius and insanity. The closer an idea is to brilliance, the closer it is simultaneously to failure.

  3. thismarty

    @Aaron: Yeah, I love that story. Who knows, maybe he’ll pull it off again with Spore?

    @Christian: I agree. If good design is about playing it safe (i.e. making the client happy), great design might very well fall more along the lines of “art”, specfically in that it is more about one auteur or iconoclast’s or visionary’s uncompromised vision.

  4. jimmypierce

    @ Marty – thanks for sharing this story.

    “The real key is to be lucky enough to get your feedback from people who truly “get” what you are trying to do. Which reminds me of a game design story …” That’s the problem with revolutionary concepts…people won’t get them, at first. It makes me think of the importance of prototyping and simulation…and the new computational tools that help designers. What prototyping and simulation leads to more revolutionary design…right? I wonder what new prototyping and simulation tools we’ll see in our lifetimes.

    @ Christian – this topic of evolutionary vs. revolutionary design is fascinating. Isn’t it interesting how evolutionary design seems to be the revolutionary concept today?

    While I think they’re are a lot of powerful ideas related to evolutionary design, I can’t help but think the we humans will always have the desire revolutionary, top-down control…for “delusional design.” Nature does does not have revolutions..only humans have revolutions. If evolutionary design (thoughtless, bottom-up process) gave way to revolutionary design (an intentional process, with top-down control) , I wonder what comes next?


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