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Failure: The Second Best F-Word 

By Steven Shyne

Failure sounds super scary, right? It conjures up memories of a sweeping red marker scrawled across an exam and pass-or-fail higher education electives courses. We’ve been trained – even conditioned – to think of failure as the worst possible outcome, but failure shouldn’t be so scary. Failure is a likely outcome, and for most endeavors a part of – not apart from – success. At this point we have all grown up, and so should our concept of failure.

First, let’s talk nuance. Failure in everyday language does mean something slightly different than in other circles - like in the scientific community, for instance. 

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
-- Thomas Edison

In fields of science, failure is simply a means of identifying what didn’t work. When an experiment fails, it’s known to just be part of the process – we record what and why it happened and learn from it, building an approach for next time. Failure can instruct iteration. 

In statistics, “failure” is simply not having enough statistical evidence to reject the baseline or null hypothesis at a set threshold of risk tolerance. It means the new data collected isn’t that much different from the old data that we already have. In this context, the failure to statistically prove a given hypothesis can protect us from incorrect (and sometimes sensationalistic) interpretations of data and - ultimately - lead us to better understanding.  

Conversely, in everyday speech we might say something is a failure, but what we mean is something has come to its end. Businesses fail, marriages fail, even hearts fail, but they’ve simply run their course. Yes, there were likely a string of actions, choices, and consequences that resulted in said failure, but everything comes to an end. Like any failure, these can likely all be learned from. 

Regardless of the setting – scientific, statistical or personal – failure (like many have said before) is the greatest teacher. It’s time to retrain ourselves and embrace failure. “Fail” is not a four-letter word. Well, it is, but you know what we mean.

Four Ways to Embrace Failure as it relates to customer experience (CX) and conversion rate optimization (CRO):

  • We should fail. If we set goals and achieve them everytime without failure, then these goals were too short-sighted, too risk-alergic to have much meaning. Set achievable but difficult goals – like number of tests put into flight, internal wireframe turnaround, or building sophisticated tech integrations – fail a few times and when you succeed it will be so much sweeter.
  • Failure is part of progress. Once you know you should fail, also that you will fail. When it comes to many client deliverables, but especially wireframes, which are meant to be exploratory and iterative, your first version will not be the one that gets approved. Knowing that can release you from the chains of "getting it right" and can open up your creativity in the process. 
  • We should celebrate failure. So you ran an A/B test and it tanked? GOOD! Now you know you messed with something that end users actually cared about. And good thing you ran it in a controlled experiment so you could track and measure performance. The only kind of failed experiment is only one that you didn't learn from. 
  • Don’t “Fail Fast.” There’s a lot of talk out there of “failing fast” and although we generally agree with the sentiment of not being afraid to fail, failing for failure-sake sounds sloppy. The point of running an A/B test is to learn, optimize, and iterate, and if you are tempted to shotgun experiment across your site, you’re going to end up wasting a lot of time, energy, and effort for a pretty big list of unsuccessful tests. Collect data, generate smart hypotheses, and properly prioritize to maximize results.

Failure is certainly part of life, but only by neglecting to learn from failure and allowing this process to establish a negative feedback loop do failures become damaging. In contrast, being able to use failure as a tool for learning and growth is inherently enlightening and positive. Applying this approach to failure when optimizing your customer experience is one of the fastest ways to find success. Want to talk about some of our favorite failures? Drop us a line at