Some Kickstarter follow-up

Last week, I wrote a bit about a design decision I’d noticed on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. Basically, Kickstarter projects that fail to meet their funding goals are:

  1. Hidden from search engines by way of “noindex” robot meta tags
  2. Not included in Kickstarter’s own Discover interface

The post got a fair bit of attention. It made it to the front page of Hacker News, was republished by Gizmodo, and was linked by GigaOM, TechCrunch, the NYT’s Bits Blog, and others.

It also generated a fair amount of smart discussion. For example, Ben Brooks raised the excellent point that “successfully funded” doesn’t necessarily mean successful:

[A] bigger point that Misener didn’t touch on is the projects that were funded that still failed.

This is not uncommon, but it’s rarely (if ever) talked about. It’s going to take a major failure for a change to be made. Imagine if the runaway success project for the Pebble watch fails to ever see the light of day. Kickstarter can rebound from that, but they need to have much better communication than they currently have with backers. Right now all I ever hear from Kickstarter is what new projects they think I should back.

What about the projects that are massively behind schedule? What responsibility should Kickstarter have to backers over those failures?

I heard from several different people about this, many of whom who had backed fruitless projects. Alan Taylor, for example, wrote me to say:

I paid $150 through Kickstarter to Zion Eyez last year and they never delivered their product and I have no recourse. Its vapor hardware and they keep pushing the date out when they will make these video glasses. I do not believe they are making anything but money.

A quick stroll through the comments section on the Zion Eyez Kickstarter page suggests that Alan’s not alone.

As for Kickstarter hiding projects that fail to meet funding goals, co-founder Yancey Strickler commented on my post earlier this week, explaining why Kickstarter projects are de-indexed from search engines:

This was implemented about a year into Kickstarter’s life after tons of requests from former project creators. Because Kickstarter projects index very highly in search, creators were seeing their unsuccessfully funded projects ranking extremely high — in some cases as the #1 result — for their name. That obviously sucked, so we made the decision to de-index them.

He also explained why unsuccessful projects aren’t easy to browse to through the site’s main interface:

it’s because it would be a poor user experience (there’s no action that anyone could take) and it would expose the creators of unsuccessfully funded projects to unnecessary criticism from the web (those projects would be prime for trolling).

I think it’s worth pointing out that Kickstarter displays lots of unactionable projects very prominently on its site — project for which the deadline has passed and contribution is no longer a possibility — but this is limited to successfully funded projects.

Many people (Yancey included) suggested that there’s not much to learn from projects that fall short of their funding goals. Maybe that’s true. Personally, I’m less interested in what individual Kickstarter failures can tell us, and much more interested to learn from failures in the aggregate. There are tons of interesting questions I’d love to be able to answer, like:

  • Which Kickstarter categories have the best track record for success?
  • What’s the percentage of successful/unsuccessful projects, or average money raised, category-by-category?
  • Are there useful insights about campaign length, reward levels, or other attributes that would only show up by comparing successes and failures?

And I’m sure there are lots of other useful bits buried in the aggregate failures.

Earlier this week, I heard a radio interview that confirmed my belief that there’s value in understanding failure. It was Nora Young’s interview with Henry Petroski, the author of To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure.

It’s a book about plane crashes and crane accidents, but perhaps its larger point is appropos to online crowdfunding as well. In the interview with Nora, he talks about the engineering mindset:

They want, above all else, to succeed. And how do you succeed? Well, you succeed by anticipating how you could fail… so failure is really the starting point. You get to success by thinking about failure.

Agreed.