UX Reflection: Assumptions & Failures

Tiny Wisdom for Giants

“Don’t ever wish to be anything but what you are.” — (Thumbelina)

I want to take you back in time. We’ll explore a classic in a moment, but first, a stop in 1994, when the animated film version of Hans Christians Anderson’s Thumbelina was coming to the screen. While the merits of this film will not be discussed here (it was great by the way), I wish to reference a quote from it that sticks with me to this day.

“Don’t ever wish to be anything but what you are.”

In the movie, Thumbelina’s mother is comforting her tiny daughter, who’s wishing she was big.

So of course, that makes me think of giants. Like Coca-Cola. Obviously.

Unfortunately, Mother was about a decade late in sharing this bit of wisdom for The Coca-Cola Company. In 1985, the company found its market shares declining. Pepsi-Cola, the notably sweeter dark cola, was beginning to surpass them in sales.

A quick online search finds that Coca-Cola researchers began to explore a new formula and received positive results with a sweeter cola. There were taste tests, surveys, and focus groups to back it up, so how could it go wrong?

I’ll make my own assumptions here, that you’ve heard this story. While the time in-production for New Coke, as it was being called, was only a few months, it has remained in infamy.

I was likely learning to walk when all of this was going down, not sipping on cola, and sending hate mail to a beverage company for betraying my trust. But others were. There was uproar amongst the community.

So what went wrong? There was due diligence. They had focus groups. There were surveys. They were getting thumbs up across the board!

Anyone interested will have their opinion. From conspiracy theorists to researchers. One that resonates with me comes from Malcolm Gladwell’s 2005 book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. In it, he references flaws inherent with taste tests. The argument is that a “sip test” did a poor job of providing the same result as a home-use test, where an entire can or bottle would be consumed. That same sweet drink, in quantity, might not have had the same appeal.

A simple mistake. They assumed that tasting something was the same as drinking something, and it may have skewed their results significantly.

So I get it. If you’re a company that’s coming up on a hundred years, and you’re looking to stick around for another hundred, sometimes you’re going to make a mistake. But what’s important, is that you work quickly to fix it, accept that there will be countless jokes about it, and eventually learn to laugh at yourself. Say, a couple of decades later, when a hit TV show is released that takes place in 1985 and you produce a small run of the infamous New Coke to celebrate…. and break the internet.

Damn, you really are a giant!

Works Cited: Thumbelina. Dir. Don Bluth, Gary Goldman. Warner Bros, 1994. Animated film.; Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell. Penguin Books, 2006.