Staff Picks

Well-Designed by Jon Kolko

Blyth Meier

January 13, 2015


Jon Kolko’s new offering from Harvard Business Press aims to help conceive, design, and produce better products based on a design process that puts users first.

Today I signed up for a webinar. This is not breaking news to anyone in the business world. Every day, thousands upon millions of workers sign up for webinars or fill out surveys or make online purchases. We are forever putting our information into endless online boxes, and are most often irritated with the process. What made this action remarkable for me was not the content of the webinar itself, but rather the sign-up form used by the hosts. Yes, the sign-up form. It was--and I'm usually loathe to use this word--frictionless. It was such an unexpected joy to sign up for this webinar, I immediately told two co-workers about this form. Then I visited the website of the company, Typeform, whose motto is to "ask awesomely." I stared at the landing page, which featured a loop of a dog licking the screen. His tongue swiped along the company's guiding thought: "Asking questions should be easy, human and beautiful." I can't tell you what a dog has to do with forms, but I was transfixed. So I clicked the video, and learned more. And I clicked the answers and learned more. Again, I am talking about a sign-up form. I'm telling you, these forms are so beautiful, I am convinced if every website used these forms our collective lives would be better. Literally, I think these forms could change the world. (Or at least our frustration level with online forms, which sometimes feels like one's whole world.)

Can a ballot someday make voting this easy? Can filing your tax form be this painless? Can I just once complete a survey for an organization I truly care about without getting bored and frustrated and closing the window halfway through?

All of these dreams can indeed become realities with a new approach to designing products and services, according to Austin-based designer Jon Kolko's new book, Well-Designed: How to Use Empathy to Create Products People Love. This practical offering from Harvard Business Press aims to help "conceive, design, and produce better products" based on a design process that puts users first--"championing peoples needs, wants and desires" over other concerns, consequences, or internal departmental divisions. This process expands the "design team" to include everyone in a company that touches product development--anyone who helps to provide products and services. (Which basically means everyone except Lloyd Dobler.)

If you are like me and glance at the conclusion before digging in to the start, here's a preview of Kolko's end point for the reader:

This process focuses on people, celebrates emotional value, and drives optimism through lateral and divergent thinking. You've learned how to build both understanding and empathy with the people who will use your product through a research methodology that requires you to leave your office and spend time with people.

When you view design as a strategic competency, it transcends surface beauty or form. It becomes a way of thinking about problems and people, and a way of working through complexity and ambiguity and driving creativity.

This framework aims to shift the product manager's development process from the traditional focus on "what the market seems to need" through the recent "loose and lean" strategy based on what people say they need, arriving at a human-centered design process that values understanding what people actually feel and do.

Market research knows you need to buy birthday presents on a regular basis. And even though you say that you contemplate on the extremely unique relationship with your loved one and painstakingly choose just the write handmade, local gift that will bring warmth and joy to their life on a daily basis, what we actually do is swing by the nearest half-way respectable store on the way to the birthday party (preferably the one that will also wrap the present on the spot) so as to not embarrass ourselves by handing over a gift card printed from our computer. You can see how a team would design very different products or services for those two scenarios. This is the crux of Kolko's design process: figure out what we really end up doing every day, and create a product or service to help make things a bit easier.

From there, Kolko takes us through this paradigm shift step-by-step, illuminating the path with jargon-free explanations, helpful tables and diagrams, and a fictional guide named Joe McQuaid whose journey to launch a new app helps us draw parallels to our own situations. Each chapter (Product-market fit, Behavior insights, Shipping, etc.) is brought into focus by a case-study interview with a variety of accomplished product managers (Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia, Foursquare's Alex Rainert), shedding some real-world light onto the detailed system he's mapping out for you.

While the book might be most readily applicable to the design sector, it also contains a myriad of very tangible insights for those of us in other professions. Even for the non-product manager among us, Kolko excels at a laying out a clear approach to this methodology, one which is "broadly applicable across industries and cultures, and is increasingly necessary as more jobs require managing an ambiguous creative process." He points to successful applications in situations as diverse as Unicef's health-care delivery system and the Harvard Business Review's editorial process. Indeed, the introduction alone sparked several incredibly helpful shifts in thinking related to my own work in branding.

And while I haven't had the chance to work through all the steps in the design process yet,  the framework of breaking down departmental divisions and learning from each other is something that resonates with me deeply, and I'm eager to get started. The folks at Typeform clearly understand this concept, and it permeates every aspect of their mundane product, which I will continue to evangelize. Their form made it so easy to sign up for a free event, I am trying to figure out how I can hire them to do everything.

Like Airbnb's Gebbia says: "At the end of the day, customers don't give a crap who worked on what, and what kind of engineer was involved, and so on. They don't care. They just want a great service." Or product. Or whatever it is that you are shipping. If you can do that--put aside internal divisions and deeply understand the customer's emotional needs, they will pay you for it, love you for it, and tell people about how you just made their lives easier.
Well-Designed will help will help get you to that place.

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