Great design is like great translation; you don’t notice it unless you make the effort. The problem with this assumptions is that there is no design that would have universal acceptance. Let’s use something general as an example, something most of you use in your daily life, like a cupboard handle in your kitchen. Now that I’ve mentioned it, you’re probably conscious on of its shape but may not really know how it feels in your hand. After all, it’s just a handle you pull and push every day, probably multiple of times. This handle may be very ornate or just a simple shaped metal arch, but this handle is something you never really should be conscious about. At least not after you’ve finished your kitchen renovation that took ages, made your wife mad and probably ended up costing you an arm and a leg after you managed to screw up the installation process early on. There are more fitting handle shapes than there are hands, because the hands we have all can accept more than just one shape. We just tend to notice when the handle doesn’t really want to work with our own.
The numerous handles does not mean that there is an equal amount of successes. While there may be thousands of handles that fit just perfectly, the reality is that there probably has been five times or more discarded pieces that never moved beyond prototype phase. And sad reality is that some of these protos probably were better than the final product. For each successful product there are tens if not hundred unsuccessful attempts.
Even the most seasoned designer will make missteps and sometimes fails to realize what is self-evident to the consumer. This is why prototyping and giving enough time to finalise the product is incredibly important. Not just in design, but in every field. Sad thing is that no product is truly ready and will have to be released to the wild in good-enough state. Sadly, with games this good-enough has been lowered to many times that games are essentially being released half-finished in order to hit the publishing date, and the missing content or known bugs are fixed through Day-One patch. God I hate Day-One patches, it never bodes well.
How does a designer know he screwed up? In game industry it’s pretty clear, when the consumer feedback can be directed to the designer through forums and social media. Sales is second, but that only tells you that the product wasn’t met with the best acceptance out there. It’s not exactly easy to pinpoint why a kitchen handle didn’t make a breakthrough in the market, but we have to allow some leeway here; kitchen handles don’t tend to sell tons after initial launch. They’re not something people need to renew too often. If ever.
The easiest way of knowing what went wrong with a design would to have the user tell you outright. For a handle, where it chafes, what wrist position it does wrong, is the surface too sleek to cause slipping and so forth. Not exactly rocket science, but general consumer doesn’t really care to give such a feedback. Then again, door handles really aren’t a million dollar business, so losses from more experimental and niche products isn’t a big deal. The good old and time-tested basic shapes still rule the market.
Feedback is something all designers should want. I say should, as this splits opinions. To some a finalised product is as intended and it fills the role it has been given to. There is no reason to go change the product afterwards, no matter what the feedback is. Sadly, this doesn’t really bode well, and I’ve seen few companies go bankrupt due to the people in charge unwilling to change aspects of their products. After all, design isn’t art and doesn’t require the same respect of author’s intent. This goes to visual design as well, e.g. web design is very dependant on how the consumer can navigate the site. I’m sure all of us could give loads of feedback to websites about their current designs.
However, as said, the consumer isn’t really willing to give feedback, not when it’s really needed. The skill to read this feedback is important as well, as feedback on a product is not a personal assault. One needs to be professional and distance themselves properly in order to read through some of the harsher bits. The difficult part begins when you start applying that feedback and may start noticing that the very core idea of your handle had is slowly being discarded in the re-evaluation and redesign process. This can lead to more prototyping and more discarded pieces, but this sort of thing happens only to something that’s absolutely required for a task, like how the Xbox’s controller got completely redesigned for the Japanese market after the hulking beast of a controller got some feedback.
Of course, when you have no feedback to go outside sales, you’re forces to analyse what went wrong. Unless you have some people around you to get things re-tested or even have money to hire a test-group. Sometimes self-evaluation is cheaper and more effective than general feedback when the faults are apparent (though you never thought them up before even when the faults were staring in your face) and relatively easy to fix.
If a designer (or a company) manages to roll out a second, updated version of the product and makes their initial one obsolete, the initial release has been essentially trash. There’s no way getting around it. Even with best intentions, with loads of time put into and a lot of polishing on a product, a failure is a failure and one just has stand up and own their mistake to learn from it. Everybody is allowed to make mistakes, we just need to learn from them. A designer can’t continue to create products that repeat the same mistakes, like a cupboard handle that has sharp enough corners to cut your hand open when grasped.