Courageous Redirection


I’ve recently run across some stories involving Pixar, Apple and game design company Blizzard Entertainment that serve as great examples of courageous redirection.

What I mean by that phrase is an instance where a design team or company was courageous enough to change direction even after huge investment of time, money and vision.

Changing direction isn’t inherently beneficial, of course. And sometimes it goes awry. But these instances are pretty inspirational, because they resulted in awesomely successful user-experience products.

Work colleague Anne Gibson recently shared an article at work quoting Steve Jobs talking about Toy Story and the iPhone. While I realize we’re all getting tired of comparing ourselves to Apple and Pixar, it’s still worth a listen:

At Pixar when we were making Toy Story, there came a time when we were forced to admit that the story wasn’t great. It just wasn’t great. We stopped production for five months…. We paid them all to twiddle their thumbs while the team perfected the story into what became Toy Story. And if they hadn’t had the courage to stop, there would have never been a Toy Story the way it is, and there probably would have never been a Pixar.

(Odd how Jobs doesn’t mention John Lasseter, who I suspect was the driving force behind this particular redirection.)

Jobs goes on to explain how they never expected to run into one of those defining moments again, but that instead they tend to run into such a moment on every film at Pixar. They’ve gotten better at it, but “there always seems to come a moment where it’s just not working, and it’s so easy to fool yourself – to convince yourself that it is when you know in your heart that it isn’t.

That’s a weird, sinking feeling, but it’s hard to catch. Any designer (or writer or other craftsperson) has these moments, where you know something is wrong, but even if you can put your finger on what it is, the momentum of the group and the work already done creates a kind of inertia that pushes you into compromise.

Design is always full of compromise, of course. Real life work has constraints. But sometimes there’s a particular decision that feels ultimately defining in some way, and you have to decide if you want to take the road less traveled.

Jobs continues with a similar situation involving the now-iconic iPhone:

We had a different enclosure design for this iPhone until way too close to the introduction to ever change it. And I came in one Monday morning, I said, ‘I just don’t love this. I can’t convince myself to fall in love with this. And this is the most important product we’ve ever done.’ And we pushed the reset button.

Rather than everyone on the team whining and complaining, they volunteered to put in extra time and effort to change the design while still staying on schedule.

Of course, this is Jobs talking — he’s a master promoter. I’m sure it wasn’t as utopian as he makes out. Plus, from everything we hear, he’s not a boss you want to whine or complain to. If a mid-level manager had come in one day saying “I’m not in love with this” I have to wonder how likely this turnaround would’ve been. Still, an impressive moment.

You might think it’s necessary to have a Steve Jobs around in order to achieve such redirection. But, it’s not.

Another of the most successful products on the planet is Blizzard’s World of Warcraft — the massively multiplayer universe with over 10 million subscribers and growing. This brand has an incredibly loyal following, much of that due to the way Blizzard interacts socially with the fans of their games (including the Starcraft and Diablo franchises).

Gaming news site IGN recently ran a thorough history of Warcraft, a franchise that started about fifteen years ago with an innovative real-time-strategy computer game, “Warcraft: Orcs & Humans.”

A few years after that release, Blizzard tried developing an adventure-style game using the Warcraft concept called Warcraft Adventures. From the article:

Originally slated to release in time for the 1997 holidays, Warcraft Adventures ran late, like so many other Blizzard projects. During its development, Lucas released Curse of Monkey Island – considered by many to be the pinnacle of classic 2D adventures – and announced Grim Fandango, their ambitious first step into 3D. Blizzard’s competition had no intention of waiting up. Their confidence waned as the project neared completion …

As E3 approached, they took a hard look at their product, but their confidence had already been shattered. Curse of Monkey Island’s perfectly executed hand-drawn animation trumped Warcraft Adventures before it was even in beta, and Grim Fandango looked to make it downright obsolete. Days before the show, they made the difficult decision to can the project altogether. It wasn’t that they weren’t proud of the game the work they had done, but the moment had simply passed, and their chance to wow their fans had gone. It would have been easier and more profitable to simply finish the game up, but their commitment was just that strong. If they didn’t think it was the best, it wouldn’t see the light of day.

Sounds like a total loss, right?

But here’s what they won: Blizzard is now known for providing only the best experiences. People who know the brand do not hesitate to drop $50-60 for a new title as soon as it’s available, reviews unseen.

In addition, the story and art development for Warcraft Adventures later became raw material for World of Warcraft.

I’m aware of some other stories like this, such as how Flickr came from a redirection away from making a computer game … what are some others?

Author: Andrew Hinton

I use information to architect better places for humans. More at

11 thoughts on “Courageous Redirection”

  1. Reminds me of the Flickr story as well. Would be multiplayer game becomes photosharing mega site because the creators realized their original idea was cool, but what people really wanted was a way to share and tag photos. I believe they got to beta before “courageously redirecting” the effort.

  2. @Abby

    Amazing how far some of these things get before turning … actually gives me a bit of angst just reading about it. It makes me wonder if I’d have the cojones to pull that trigger.

  3. @ Andrew

    Only did it once. One of the only times I have cried at work. Ill tell you the story sometime.

  4. At UX Week last year there was a presentation by the design lead for Microsoft Word. He mentioned that they had spent more than six months on a design and they decided to scrap it and start over again, leading to the current Ribbon design.

  5. Great article! I have been in several situations where I wish the product manager had the cojones for some courageous redirection!

    The one thought that I had while reading it was that many of the projects you described are quite fixed after release (maybe not WoW). Once Pixar releases Toy Story, the movie is done and will never change form no matter how much feedback they get. A more “soft” product, such as a website, often has to change based on how people use it, so getting it right in the beginning is not really that important, but perhaps growing into a different direction?

  6. @alla that’s an excellent distinction to be aware of … I do think it’s still important to figure out what key parts of the experience have to be *just right* — but yes, there’s room for improvement after the fact. And depending on your user-base, they may be used to having more changes happening ongoing on your particular site (or in your application).

  7. This is, of course, the “sunk cost fallacy” — how people so often feel that they cannot change direction when they’ve spent so much on their current direction.

    I think there are two great ways of eliminating the kind of big momentum that prevents big changes.

    First, practice little changes all the time. Allow individuals to change course mid-week or mid-day based on new facts (kaizen. Sketch (the hotness) lots of ideas instead of investing in the first one. You know the drill.

    Second, roll out changes in small increments. Which, of course, is also all the rage these days.

  8. Really interesting, though the latest Wired has an article about the failure of Duke Nukem 3D that seems to be a caution story against too much “courageous redirection.” These anecdotes make for compelling stories, but one could probably drudge up stories where these redirections turned out to be mistakes? Just playing devil’s advocate….

    1. @sarzha Fascinating article! That’s a great point … and something I’ve been thinking about a bit.
      When I read the article, I kept thinking Broussard felt different for some reason, from the other people I’d referenced. Admittedly it may just be the way the Wired article is written, in hindsight. If he’d been wildly successful, that would’ve changed how we see his decisions, perhaps? But the big difference seems to be that the other products eventually shipped. They took the bold step of actually releasing a product to the world, even after making some major changes along the way. They knew that all their courage meant nothing if they didn’t actually put a product in people’s hands.
      I don’t know, maybe it’s easy to say that in hindsight? But Jobs’ Apple has had multiple failures, including the Lisa, the early Apple TV, the mouse on the early iMac, the Cube, etc. They were willing to fail.
      Broussard wasn’t willing to fail. He kept letting something get in the way of going ahead and shipping his product. I wonder if it was fear?
      Seth Godin has a great talk on this that I saw recently, here:
      I’m not saying it’s an easy distinction to make, and it’s probably nearly impossible in the moment. But it seems to me the main problem Duke Nukem had was that it simply never shipped, so they could move on to another product.

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