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Jon Kolko: 'Well Designed'

There's more to designing best-selling products than simply loading them with features, says Jon Kolko, whose new book explains how the most important ingredient in design is human engagement.

In today's world of integrated design it's hard to imagine what went before the simplicity of the touchscreen tablet, the smartphone or the MP3 player. But it was only a few years ago that the LED clocks on our VCRs blinked at us with rows of zeros because we hadn't worked out how to set the time. In those days people used their mobile phones to place telephone calls and very little else. The idea that handheld consumer electronic devices would one day control our lives was little more than a dream.

But landscapes shift and the world we occupy today has changed radically and quickly. According to Jon Kolko it is the consumer that has changed it. Kolko is the author of a book on how to create industrial products that resonate with the public. Called 'Well Designed', its subtitle tells us his objective is to explain how to use empathy to create products people love. The key word is empathy. As Kolko says: "Companies need to first deeply understand customer thoughts and feelings, and this must be reflected in the product."

To understand Kolko's book we need to get to grips with what he means by design. He states that engineers think of design either as aesthetics or usability. "These are both true. But design is also a process for solving problems. As a problem-solving process, design shares characteristics with engineering. Both processes involve informed trial and error, and designers, like engineers, leverage prototypes to work through complexity or ambiguity." And yet approaches to design and engineering differ in at least three ways, Kolko says.

The first difference is related to divergence. "Designers work to solve problems in a number of different ways rather than in the optimal way. This often results in innovative or surprising solutions." Second, design tells a human story rather than a technological one. "The value of the design innovation isn't in its optimisation or speed or execution," says Kolko. "It's in the emotional connections people have when they encounter a new idea. This is subjective, highly contextual and requires an intimate relationship with the people who will use a given product." Finally, design is about making 'inferential' leaps in insight. By this Kolko means pursuing paths that are logically incomplete, exploring the possibilities created by instinct and intuition.

Kolko says that the consumer has changed the landscape of design by inhabiting a world that demands simplicity, technical excellence and positive engagement. He posits that the traditional design paradigms no longer work. "Product design has always been about humanising technology. A doorknob is designed, but it's such a simple form of technological advancement that it's silly to think of a specialist helping to make doorknobs more intuitive, more emotionally charged or more engaging." He explains that for much of the 20th century designers focused only on the aesthetics or ergonomics of products such as doorknobs, chairs and coffee pots. In this world of what he calls "obvious interactions", companies could get away with making "some pretty awful choices" about how consumers were to interact with products. This was because the repercussions of getting the design wrong were small.

As the consumer space evolved and technological advancement crept into our vehicles, homes and even doorknobs, as Kolko says, "for most people who are neither technically proficient, nor aspire to be, this new world is strange". One reason for the strangeness is that digital products tend to be less forgiving and we tend to have higher expectations of them. Computers should not fail, says Kolko, "and I shouldn't feel overwhelmed when confronted with my digital health tracker or the GPS in my car." Companies promise a brave new world, yet the reality is often disappointing. "It's against this backdrop of high-tech products that the ideas of my book are based: about humanising technology in a way that people can best benefit from advancements."

Kolko unashamedly tackles his subject from the position of the designer. "I studied design in school, and have spent the past two decades practising design at consultancies, start-ups and large corporations." He has had one foot in academia while at the same time writing several books about design, an experience that for him "complements the more craft-based aspects of doing design working practice."

'Well Designed' describes a process of innovation currently evolving organically at design consultancies such as Frog, IDEO, Etsy and Uber. Kolko says, "since they are so new, most of the people practising these methods are literally making them up. There are large gaps in how to introduce methods and this process, and how to leverage them and how to institutionalise them. The conversation around product design typically starts and ends with 'lean', a grip-it-and-rip-it approach to experimentation. The 'lean' methodology is not effective for producing emotionally resonant consumer products, yet there is no substantial alternative offers for entrepreneurs or product managers."

Bringing products to market has always included risk, and when Kolko thinks of design failure he has a tendency to reflect on Apple, "mostly because it exemplifies a very cultural push for innovation under Steve Jobs. During the past two decades Apple launched a Power Mac G4 Cube, the Apple eMate, the Apple Pippin, the Newton, the QuickTake camera, eWorld, and the Apple III. All of these products failed for a variety of reasons: poor product/market fit, a lack of clarity on the value proposition, poor execution." But the key thing to remember here, Kolko says, is that all of these products actually made it to the market. "I've seen so many products – some great, some awful – killed before they launch, because the organisational culture doesn't truly embrace the risk associated with innovation."

In other words, it is easy for a company to have aspirations to be like Apple: the desire to bring to market and sell vast quantities of a well-designed product that the public loves is universal. But it is not so easy for a company to wish to emulate Apple in investing billions of dollars in risky ideas and having the nerve to see them through. To do this, says Kolko the best approach is to look at human behaviour. "It's not about questionnaires, competitive analysis, retrospective interviews, or any other form of customer intervention. It's about watching what people actually do." 

'Well Designed' by Jon Kolko is published by Harvard Business Review Press, £18.99

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