Fog Creek

Using Empathy to Create Products People Love – Interview with Jon Kolko

In this interview with Jon Kolko, author of ‘Well Designed: How to Use Empathy to Create Products People Love’, we discuss his design-focussed product development process. We cover how to get and use feedback, how to know what feedback to focus on, the importance of building products with personality and how non-designers can learn more about product design.

Content and Timings

  • Introduction (0:00)
  • About Jon (0:27)
  • Why Emotional Engagement of Users is Important in Product Design (0:50)
  • Product-Market Fit (3:15)
  • Getting and Using Feedback (5:20)
  • Building Products with Personality (9:12)
  • Applying the Techniques to Existing Products (12:18)
  • Recommended Product Design Resources for Non-designers (13:20)

Transcript

Introduction

Derrick:
Today we have Jon Kolko, VP of Consumer Design at Blackboard and Founder and Director of Austin Center for Design. Previously Creative Director at Frog Design, Professor of Design at Savannah College and has recently published his fourth book with Harvard Business Review Press entitled ‘Well Designed: How to Use Empathy to Create Products People Love’. Jon thank you for joining us today, why don’t you say a bit about yourself.

About Jon

Jon:
How are you? Thanks for having me. That was a pretty robust introduction so I’m not sure there’s anything left to say, except I’m happy to be here. I enjoyed writing the book, I’m hoping that it’s a well received tool for people in design roles that are getting in to product and really drive a more strategic focus in their organizations.

Why Emotional Engagement of Users is Important in Product Design

Derrick:
It describes a design-focussed product development process that really focusses on the emotional engagement of users. Why is that important?

Jon:
It’s a good question, you know, traditionally products have been driven by technical requirements, technologists getting excited about what the product can do or you know, marketers really sort of trying to amp up the competitive landscape. Trying to 1 up people on features and functions. Sorry of my go to example there is like the Mach 3 razor, and just adding another blade over and over. And may be that was a good idea, may be it wasn’t a good idea but it certainly doesn’t seem to work with digital products. I think for a couple of reasons.

First, the complexity of the products. And sort of the ability and interest of people to use them and understand those things. And the second is the intimate way that we bring these in to our lives. If you think a little bit about most of the products we use and love, like Facebook, or Twitter, Pinterest or whatever they are. They’re not just utilities any more, they actually describe and get at our identity. And so, I think we need a different process to drive those and at the heart of that is the people who are going to use them. The technology and business interests become secondary, and the people and their emotional needs become the primary.

Derrick:
Eventually you want people to feel good about what they are using.

Jon:
Yeah absolutely, and I don’t think that good is even the right word. It’s certainly part of it, you don’t want people to feel bad. But I think really it’s about creating engagement. And I don’t necessarily mean a SEO marketing sense, I mean a much more resonate sense. If you think about the stuff that you bring in to your house. Sort if your house was on fire what do you take. You know and you can only carry one thing. When you get past the people and the cat, most people get to pretty intimate stuff like old photos or maybe pieces of art or things that have personal meaning and stories embedded in them. And that’s really the level of engagement that I think we’re trying to drive in to product design now. Which means that good is sort of like table stakes, of course it has to be good, but it actually has to be emotionally moving. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to shed a tear over using Pinterest or something like that, but I think that there’s this level of wanting to drive love. Love the products that you are using. And again, I think that requires a different way of thinking about product development.

When you get out of the building what you do matters

Product-Market Fit

Derrick:
Part of the process is knowing the people, but also determining the market-product fit. What is the product-market fit and how do you know when you’ve reached it?

Jon:
Yeah, it’s a good question. It’s sort of thrown around a lot in hip startup land, in lean startup land. I think about it, first I’ll give an example. And it’s an example that I like to use a lot because I think it is crazy. Think about Google Glass and sort of how bizarre it is, right. It’s not just technically advanced, it’s like normatively advanced. We’re not ready for it as a culture, so when we see people using it, it feels really strange. Right, it feels disconcerting for non-technologists when they encounter somebody with it. It’s a curiosity piece but it’s also just bizarre. And I think it’s because there’s very little precedent for wearing computers on their face. But if you sort of tap back off a little bit, we actually do have a precedent for that in Bluetooth headsets. And years ago we didn’t see people wearing those things. And the first couple of times we saw people talking to themselves on the Subway or whatever, wow that’s strange. But now, I wouldn’t say it’s un-strange, but it’s less strange. So we’re starting to see cultural adoption of these things. And when I think about Product-Market fit, that’s one of the key components of it. Is culture as a whole ready for the innovation that you’re driving. Because technology is strange and design’s role is to make it familiar and humanise it. And so if you think about any of the innovations that we’re tracking, Uber, AirBnB, the technology is actually fairly simplistic in what makes those work. It’s actually the cultural norms that are changing. Like are you actually ready for someone to stay in your house when you’re not there? And I’ll give you a quick anecdote.

My parents came for Thanksgiving and my sister did as well. And my sister was all excited to get an AirBnB and experience Austin sort of traditionally. My parents said ‘no way! we’re staying at the Days Inn’ or whatever it is because it’s predictable. They understand what the experience is going to be like. And so, that’s starting to become a cultural norm, but it’s not there for my parents, they’re late adopters.

A lot of Entrepreneurs that I meet, they’re really void of opinion.

Getting and Using Feedback

Derrick:
How do you start to really get feedback from people as a key part of your process?

Jon:
Yeah, I think that may be the most important part. It’s the idea of ethnographic research to drive product innovation. I think that most product development processes, like Lean, and things like that, recommend that you get out of the building. And I couldn’t agree more, except the difference is that when you get out of the building what you do matters. You could ask people a lot of questions, you could have questionnaire and ask them ‘would you buy this?’, ‘could you see yourself in this?’ or you can watch behavior. And that’s really the secret sauce behind how all of this really works. When you watch people you get to insights, you get to fundamentals about human behavior. And I consider these sort of provocative statements of truth. You can craft these fundamentals about the way things are and then you come back in to ways think should be. And I can sort of give you a quick example of how that plays out in my world.

I joined Blackboard as, through an acquisition of MyEDU, which was a startup. And MyEDU focussed on succeeding in College and getting a job. And we did a lot of this qualitative research that I talked about. We spent tons of time with college students, in their dorm rooms, watching them plan their schedules, using the different tools that supported them. And we identified a bunch of utilitarian issues, like improve usability of this and increase the functionality of that, but really we noticed an underlying theme of anxiety. College students are really sort of worried about all the steps in the process and if you think about it there’s a pretty rational reason why. Each step is positioned as critical for the rest of your life. You know, you pick a school and it effects the rest of your life. Pick a major and it’s the rest of your life. And obviously that’s not true, if you reflect on your own experience and I feel most of us as we get older know that’s not how it played out. But this level of anxiety is really under all of these decisions. So how that plays out in our products, is instead of saying we’re going to offer all of the capabilities, we say we’re going to offer this emotional proposition – everything we do is going to minimize anxiety. And if that becomes the criterion, then we can start to assess the capabilities to include based on that, rather than a set of requirements.

Derrick:
A quote often associated with Henry Ford is ‘if I had asked people what they had wanted, they would have said faster horses’, how do you know what feedback to listen to?

Jon:
Yeah it’s really a great quote. It does sort of capture the essence of this stuff. I’ve often wondered if he really said that or if that’s legend. But anyway, I think the essence is right, and it’s actually up to the designers and the product managers. It’s not just about just doing what the customers says, and I actually think that’s a big trap that you can get in to with some of these Lean approaches. Is if you leave the building and ask customers what they want and then build it, and it doesn’t work. It’s actually about interpreting the data. And what that means is having an opinion. If you think about some of the products that we love, and delve in to some of the product managers that work on those, which I do in that book, there’s a number of interviews, they have an opinion, right. They have a North Star that they’re planning for. The qualitative research informs the emotional story around the opinion and it informs the execution of the opinion. But it’s not a blank slate, right. You’re not simply chasing whatever the next thing is. And when I reflect on a lot of Entrepreneurs that I meet, they’re really void of opinion, they just want to make a zillion dollars. And I’m a fan of making a zillion dollars too but I think that you have to start with having a firm sort of view of the world, like how the world should be, how it’s broken now and using that to actually drive a lot of the research.

Building Products with Personality

Derrick:
Thinking around products often focuses on adding features to, and making them work for the widest possible market. But you talk about having a product stance and building a distinct personality in to these products. Why do you think this is important and what should you do if some people just don’t like your products personality?

Jon:
I think that’s the challenge, or may be that’s the compromise. If you have an opinion, if you build this product stance, some people won’t like it. You’re not going to get every single person to use it. And we can go back to that AirBnB example, and part of that for may parents was this sort of non-familiarity with the model, no cultural norm to back it up to. Part of it was also that it’s just not for them. Philosophically, they don’t believe in staying in someone else’s house. And I’m not sure we’re ever going to be able to change that. Like even if that cultural norm changes, they might not change, and that’s just fine. That actually does become a market segmentation exercise of like ‘do I have enough people left once I go through all of these stages to qualify and justify having a business.’ But this product stance is critical, otherwise you end up with an ambiguous sort of blandness. There’s a phenomenon in branding called ‘blanding.’ Which is where you sort of try to appease everyone and end up appealing to no one.

Do the things they do, rather than ask them about the things they do.

Derrick:
When you’re first implementing a product its personality won’t be fully formed, how can engineers go about starting to build a product whilst maintaining its integrity?

Jon:
I’m really not a big fan of this grip it and rip it approach to product development. You know where you just build something and get it out there. I am a big fan of iterative development cycles once there’s a product formed. Like at MyEDU they were deploying two to three times a day, and that’s a great method to be in. But when you’re starting you need to build a scaffold that is thoughtful. And that takes, almost like your spring zero, right. Like a lot of Agile teams have started doing this sort of pre-sprints where they focus on building the design work. Which is some typical stuff, wireframes and comps and then going in to some type of well-structured UI prototyping. But I think that that thinking has to be there otherwise we really end up with a Frankenstein. I think a lot of teams are now rebelling against, or beginning to push back on this, ‘just start! just build something,’ because they realise it ends up with some crappy products.

Applying the Techniques to Existing Products

Derrick:
How can those with existing products begin to apply some of these concepts? Can you build a personality in to a product if they didn’t previously have one?

Jon:
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. The key there is to perform the qualitative research. Because you can back in to this stuff right. It doesn’t all have to be there globally and holistically. You can just increment your way in there. You know, what a lot of people at large corporations have to do is just sneak it in. This is just the small quick hits. Do a little qualitative research, probably small, un-funded on the side. And then drive a small success. And then people say ‘hey, that’s really cool, I want some of that,’ and then you can get more success and so on and so forth. If you’re in the luxury position of having authority of a startup say, then you can choose this, you’re prioritising this over something else. So rather than this get out of the building mentality, which focuses on Q+A and questionnaires, get out of the building and start watching people’s real behavior. That’s actually, if you boil it down, that’s the fundamental. Do the things they do, rather than ask them about the things they do.

Recommended Product Design Resources for Non-designers

Derrick:
Beyond your book, what are some of the resources you can recommend for non-designers interested in developing more of a design-lead approach to product development?

Jon:
The key is actually anthropology, it’s kind of weird. Starting to learn what it’s like to research people. And a lot of that comes down to what we can bastardize and steal from anthropology circles. Ethnography is a form of applied anthropology, you know, Jane Goodall is sort of the quintessential example, living with the Chimpanzees, understanding their cultural norms and things like that. If you’re looking to get in to this stuff, then start to emerge yourself in culture, start to really notice how people live their lives.

Derrick:
Jon, thank you so much for joining us today. It was a pleasure speaking with you.

Jon:
Ok, thank you Derrick, I appreciate it.