Is Your Product 'Well Designed'?
Humans are programmed to make quick judgments based on what they see, so when it comes to product design, appearances are crucial. But for market longevity, there has to be more to a product than meets the eye. To be successful in the long run, companies must exercise empathy to develop an emotional understanding of their customers and deliver not only aesthetically pleasing products or experiences, but also ones that resonate with customers emotionally. In his book Well Designed, Jon Kolko, vice president of consumer design at Blackboard, an educational software provider, offers his insight on incorporating empathy into product design. He shared his advice for creating "something meaningful" with Associate Editor Maria Minsker.
CRM: Can you elaborate on the book's title? How can companies build "well-designed" products?
Jon Kolko: This book is a culmination of five to six years of different experiences. All the companies that I've worked with or work for have struggled with the same question: What makes a product great? Everybody is always scratching their heads about what makes some products shine on Pinterest, Twitter, and Facebook while other products just never get that momentum and don't go anywhere. But when I talked to companies that have succeeded at this, what emerged are really three main threads—creating a vision, rallying a consensus around that vision with solid visual artifacts, and actually building and shipping the product. All of this led to the creation of Well Designed, which synthesizes these three key elements into a cohesive set of actionable ways to approach design.
CRM: You urge companies to engage in "design thinking." What do you mean by that?
Kolko: Design thinking sounds like kind of a buzzword, but it's actually pretty complex. When people think about design, most just tend to think about aesthetics. Aesthetics are part of the story, but they're not the entire story. Design is really about problem-solving. So to understand what I mean by design thinking, you have to think about design as both a noun and a verb, and then you can start to understand what design thinking is. It means bringing the visual and functional together with the emotional so that products have value from a practical perspective and add something meaningful to people's lives.
CRM: How can companies implement design thinking in a business context?
Kolko: It's all about developing insight based on empathic relationships with people. The best way to explain this is by way of an example. The start-up I was at was called MyEdu, and it was recently acquired by Blackboard [whose software helps college administrators and professors track assignments, grades, and other content]. For Blackboard, acquiring us was a big shift because it represented a transition from focusing on administrators to focusing on students and empathizing with them, which we at MyEdu did by immersing ourselves in their culture. This didn't just mean asking them "Would you buy this?" It involved spending time with them, visiting where they live, and just watching them be students, all with their permission, of course. By spending a rich amount of quality time with them, we were able to start to build an understanding of their needs as well as develop a deep emotional bond. And while that basic understanding can help us figure out what they need from a product functionally, it's that empathetic perspective that reveals their emotional needs. In our case, what it comes down to is that the college experience comes with a lot of anxiety, so our task was to build functional products that minimized that anxiety.
CRM: You also bring up the idea of using social signals to determine whether a product will succeed in the market. Can you give our readers an example?
Kolko: Well, look at Google Glass. It's really innovative and fresh and exciting, but when you look at someone wearing it, it's kind of almost dehumanizing, and you have to do a double take when you see one on the street. We're not ready in our society and our culture to just accept it as the norm yet. Companies have to pay attention to these signals and notice how society is getting ready to accept technology. You have to wait till the masses are ready, and you have to make sure that there's an emotional preparedness. Again, it's all about empathy.