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Design Lessons: Nailed It!

Design permeates our lives.  It is everywhere.  I was recently re-binging a Netflix show, Nailed It!, and began to think about the design of the game in the show.  

While a TV show might not seem the obvious place to find design lessons, the format of Nailed It! is essentially a game (which I will review below).  While entertaining, Nailed It! is, at its’ heart, a game show and the game itself has some very interesting aspects.


If you've not watched Nailed It!, here is a brief explanation.  Three contestants compete for $10,000 over two game rounds.  The first round players prepare a simple confection, such as a cake pop, cookie, etc.  At the end of the time given to make the requested item, players are judged and several awards are given.  

One player, the winner, is given a smaller prize, while the player that did the worst is given a special button that will punish the other players during the next round.  The punishment changes from game to game, but an example is a freezer burn button, where opponents must stop moving for 3 minutes.

All players also receive a Panic button, which will summon one of the hosts (the one with cooking experience) to give them advice for 3 minutes.

Issue #1

Player Elimination.  Some games make good use of it, some do not.  Generally, kicking someone out of game seems like a fairly harsh maneuver, but in game shows, it is common, particularly as a way to elicit an emotional response.  

This tactic punishes circumstances, such as bad luck, getting comfortable with being on television, or even just learning how everything works.  Kicking someone off doesn’t teach anyone anything, but does make an example of them.

The Fix

Nailed It! does not have player elimination.  In fact, the flow of the game is fairly egalitarian.  The first round, is really a practice round.  Players will familiarize themselves with the kitchen layouts, learn how to use the appliances, and the location of ingredients.

In this round, the stakes are low, and while there is a prize awarded, it is under $500 (or 5% of total prize).  Additionally, while the players are being judged, they are given specific feedback and advice to improve their chances of winning the next round.  

In some ways, the format of Nailed It! is really a game that teaches the players how to play.  The first round is almost the tutorial.  The judges provide color commentary and entertainment.

Issue #2

Setup to win.  There are many games where the players have nothing and are expected to win, by accumulating points, money, etc.  Viewers are watching execution of skills that have probably been practiced quite a bit.  

This makes most game shows similar to professional sporting events.  The audience is there to witness perfect execution of a narrow skill set, with the winner being the player that makes one less mistake.

The Fix

Nailed It! avoids this issue by setting up the players to fail.  With the idea that ‘players cannot win’ baked into the show (pardon the pun), players are given an automatic out for their less than perfect results.  

The times given the players seem insufficient for even professional bakers to make the requested confection (at least based on other cooking shows).  This actually frees and encourages players to find short cuts for achieving the desired look of their baked good.  

Nailed It! has some simple baking in it, but the real difficulty usually arises from the decorating portion of the challenge.  Nailed It! isn’t about how to achieve an end goal, but about how someone fails.  

How can a player achieve victory when they have been given an impossible task?  Improvise and adapt.  Quick thinking and creativity.  Since everybody fails, it isn’t about that; players are given a chance to show what they can do when working toward a shared goal.

Issue #3

Most shows do not feature professionals, but rather amateur or average people, working within the rules of the game.  Which means that the skill level is often static within the game.  Players who have trained before the show will demonstrate a better command of the game, such as in Jeopardy.  This means that viewers are not watching players improve, but just watching them perform. 

Games often compensate for this by having a catch-up mechanic or some other random element of putting a less skilled player back into competition.  Sometimes this catch-up can seem unfair or even so broken that players try to fail, to get the ‘catch-up’ bump.

The Fix

Nailed It! has an element of growth which can be delightful and surprising.  There are many instances of players repeating or following advice and tips they received in the first round to do better in the final round.  

And while there are upsets in games like Jeopardy, it is much more common for the players that take an early lead, to end the game, with the lead.  In Jeopardy, the upset is most likely to come from a player that has shown a similar level of skill as the other lead player(s).

In Nailed It!, there are often upsets, where the player that didn’t do well in the first round, comes back to win the final round.  There are also quite a few examples of Nailed It! players ignoring advice and continuing to architect their own failures.  

Issue #4

Most game shows with highly skilled players, have an expectation that to perform sub par is to invite mocking.  This can make shows that focus on how those players lose, painful to watch, as some shows focus heavily on simply being mean or ridiculing the players.  This speaks to the spirit of the show.  

The Fix

While the hosts/judges largely drive the spirit of a show, the judges on Nailed It! focus on the end result much more than the path followed to that goal.  While the judging can look fairly subjective, judges will often point out that an entry has all the elements of the requested cake, or that a cake is moist, etc.

The judges will frequently compliment players who find clever ways to deal with setbacks or achieve some of their goals.  The judges do not rigidly enforce the idea that there is only ‘one true way’ to create the requested food.  This contrasts very sharply with shows like The Great British Bakeoff where players are often penalized for doing things differently then the judges would like.


Nailed It! has some intriguing design elements, some of which almost seem to be inspired by video games.  People often talk about designing for ‘fun’, trying to define ‘fun’, or creating environments for ‘fun’ to manifest.

Looking at Nailed It!, most of the players seem to be having fun, even though they know they aren’t going to create a replica of the end cake.  It is interesting to see how the mechanics (player tutorial, demonstrate creativity and adaption, players fail and still win) create a fun environment or just cause players to enjoy the competition.  

Watching shows like Sugar Rush is a very different experience.  The contestants rarely seem to be having fun and in fact seem to be stressed and angry.  

Design lessons can manifest in the most unexpected of places, even a light-hearted show like Nailed It!.


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