We heard recently that our developer contractors have decided they have to abandon their efforts to make the first facial recognition system they investigated work. It was a tough call; they had put a lot of effort into it, thinking many times if they could just tweak this and alter that, they would get better performance than 60%. Alas, they finally decided it was not going to happen, at least without a ridiculous amount of further effort for the eventual reward. So, they are taking a different tack, starting over, almost, though they have lots of lessons learned from the first go-round.

I think this indecision about when it makes sense to try and fix the leaking ship vs. abandon ship and find another is a great parallel with exhibit development. Sometimes, you have a great idea that you try with visitors, and it flops. You get some good data, though, and see a way you can try it again. You make your changes. It flops again, though maybe not quite as spectacularly. Just enough better to give you hope. And so on … until you have to decide to cut bait and either redesign something for that task entirely or, if you’re working with a larger exhibition, find another piece to satisfy whatever learning or other goals you had in mind for the failed piece.

In either situation, it’s pretty heartbreaking to let go of all that investment. When I first started working in prototyping, this happened to our team designing the Making Models exhibition at the Museum of Science, Boston. As an intern, I hadn’t invested anything in the failed prototype, but I could see the struggle in the rest of the team, and it made such an impression that I recall it all these years later. Ultimately, the final exhibit looks rather different from what I remember, but its success is also a testament to the power of letting go. Hopefully, we’ll eventually experience that success with our facial recognition setups!