#27 Seth Godin – Why Bad Design Happens
May 26, 2021
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Permission marketing pioneer, author, and entrepreneur Seth Godin talks about products and services that don’t work in his twenty-minute Ted Talk, “This Is Broken”. There is a lot of frustratingly poor design out there. That inspired Godin to think about why things are broken. In his talk he shows some funny bad design examples. He came up with seven reasons, including the possibility that something is broken on purpose. This last of the seven reasons offers a surprise insight. All of these reasons can help guide you in running your business and your marketing campaigns with an eye to delivering stuff that works and avoiding creating things that are broken. Read on to learn why bad design happens.


How do you know if it is broken?

First, let’s talk about how we know if something is broken. Godin says if you think it is broken, you are right. If it does not work for everyone, it is at least somewhat broken. If your customers think they do not like something you are doing, they are probably not wrong! Now let’s talk about seven reasons things can be broken. 


Reason 1: Not my job. 

This one is pretty common. If there is no one who feels responsible, the problem may arise and not get fixed. At Viral Octopus, our teams have shared responsibility to meet customer expectations. Getting your teams to feel cohesive and share a deeper goal than just getting their checklist done helps avoid this cause of brokenness. 

Godin shows a funny example, a sign that says “Soccer not allowed. Soccer may be played in the archery range.” That does not work. The sign maker made the sign anyway. It is not his job to question that policy. 


Reason 2: Selfish jerks

Godin is a permission marketer. His biggest idea is that bothering people is not a good way to sell stuff. Serving people is a good way to sell stuff. That is smart. Spam is dumb. Spamming breaks your brand. Spam happens because some people are selfish jerks. They don’t care that people don’t want spam. 


Reason 3: Changed needs between time of design and time of use

The design may have been good at one time, but things change. Be on the lookout for changing conditions that may necessitate changes to your products or services. 


Reason 4 & 5: I didn’t know / I am not a fish

Seth shows a button interface for a laser cutter where several of the many buttons are very worn and the most are untouched. All the buttons are the same size. If someone who used the machine designed the interface, they could have made it easier to use by making the most frequently used buttons larger. 

Godin shows a culvert with a little pour-over at the end that a fish cannot swim up contrasted with a fish-friendly culvert. The designer of the unfriendly culvert did not do a good job because they are not a fish. We can infer from this lesson that we should try to really know our clients needs and problems and try to think like our clients to serve them better.


Reason 6: Contradictions

For contradictions, he gives a funny example, selling wine with a tablet wine list. Wine, says Godin, is about “paying 90 for something that was made in oak in France and as soon as you add the Windows Operating System to wine they are just not going to pay as much”. This is not really so much a reason as a type of brokeness, but Godin lets us know early on he is winging this presentation. Perfection was not a goal. In fact, he may have been winning his audience over with his vulnerability. Which is a nice segue…


Reason 7: Broken on purpose

Seth’s cell phone plan rebate cards came in single use cards that are inflexible, so the user might leave a balance on the card. In order to possibly screw him out of $3 or $4, his cell phone provider gave him something that was broken on purpose and soured the relationship in a business that is all about lifetime customer value. Broken on purpose and dumb!

Jimmy Chu shoes are not good at being shoes, if shoes are things you put on your feet and walk around in. They are good at something else, and people like them and pay a lot for them. They are broken on purpose. It is possible to be broken on purpose in a good way. 


Seth wraps up on a pensive, inspiring note. It is ok to make something that most people do not like if some people love it.