Jon Kolko: An interview by Bob Morris

KolkoJon Kolko is Vice President of Consumer Design at Blackboard; he joined Blackboard with the acquisition of MyEdu, a startup focused on helping students succeed in college and get jobs. Jon is also the Founder and Director of Austin Center for Design. His work focuses on bringing the power of design to social enterprises, with an emphasis on entrepreneurship. He has worked extensively with both startups and Fortune 500 companies, and he’s most interested in humanizing educational technology.

Jon has previously held positions of Executive Director of Design Strategy at Thinktiv, a venture accelerator in Austin, Texas, and both Principal Designer and Associate Creative Director at frog design, a global innovation firm. He has been a Professor of Interaction and Industrial Design at the Savannah College of Art and Design, where he was instrumental in building both the Interaction and Industrial Design undergraduate and graduate programs. Jon has also held the role of Director for the Interaction Design Association (IxDA), and Editor-in-Chief of interactions magazine, published by the ACM. He is regularly asked to participate in high-profile conferences and judged design events, including the 2013 Cooper-Hewitt National Design Awards. He has taught at the University of Texas at Austin, the Center for Design Studies of Monterrey, in Mexico, and Malmö University, in Sweden.

Jon is the author of four books. Thoughts on Interaction Design, published by Morgan Kaufmann; Exposing the Magic of Design: A Practitioner’s Guide to the Methods and Theory of Synthesis, published by Oxford University Press; and Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving, published by Austin Center for Design. His latest, Well-Designed: How to use Empathy to Create Products People Love, was published by Harvard Business Review Press in November, 2014.

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Morris: Before discussing Well-Designed, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal and professional growth? How so?

Kolko: Four people. First, I had a ceramics mentor growing up, a fellow named Alec Hazlett. He’s one of the eminent potters in upstate New York. I studied with him for close to twenty years, and he had a profound influence on the way I think about work, craft, art, design, and humanism. next, I studied under Richard Buchanan at Carnegie Mellon University, and his perspective on the power of design to shape strategy, corporate culture, and society greatly influenced the way I think about design.

When I first taught at Savannah College of Art and Design, Robert Fee was one of my first guides. He helped me become a better educator, and while I may have helped teach him tenacity, he taught me patience. Finally, my wife of fourteen years has been instrumental in shaping my views of personal relationships, and the role of empathy in these relationships.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Kolko: In retrospect, my career path looks planned and well formed. Actually – like everyone else – it was circuitous. I bounced back and forth between start ups, consulting and education, and for a long time, I was chasing something ambiguous professionally. I found it with a crew of designers that I first worked with at frog. We’ve moved together to a startup MyEdu, to a consultancy called Plain Penguin, and now to Blackboard. I think the turning point for me was less role-based, and more experiential: I found a group of people that I completely trust, and that are extraordinarily fun to work with.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Kolko: I credit Carnegie Mellon with pushing me in a humanist trajectory towards problem solving. It’s a combination of Herb Simon and Dick Buchanan, and I was lucky enough to be at CMU when both were teaching. I also credit Carnegie Mellon with giving me a pretty amazing transdisciplinary experience; I studied design, psychology, statistics, computer science, and anthropology.

But I think the majority of who I am today has been shaped by my interactions with my ceramics mentor. This one-on-one mentorship isn’t something I anticipated; I fell into it when I was six and my mom was trying to find activities like sports or music that I would find appealing. In retrospect, this informal mentorship – friendship, really – was much more important to me than my formal academic experiences.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Kolko: It’s all made up. All of it. When you pop out of undergraduate education, there are words, and organizational structures, and processes, and it feels very Figured Out. It’s not. Once I came to terms with this, I realized I could quite literally do anything I wanted. Some things are harder than others, and some are more fun than others, but in a business context, the whole thing is a game. I don’t take much seriously – I’m pretty much only buttoned up about design and education – and when you realize that the context of business is so malleable, it becomes a lot more fun, an environment that invites play.

Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Kolko: I grew up, like many other teenage boys, as an Ayn Rand fanatic. I ate her stuff up. I’ve gotten over it, and you can see a pretty strong shift in my thinking in my most recent book. But take aside the pretentious dogma in her work and you have a pretty rich celebration of personal work ethic. That’s stuck with me. I love what I do, and I work all the time – because it doesn’t feel like work. It wasn’t always that way; I had all of the personal self-doubt I think everyone has. But I worked through it, and I suppose the lesson there is to realize the hard, long slog of practice results in a success.

Morris: From Howard Aiken: “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

Kolko: I like this. I have a variation that I teach my students. Ideas are free. We have thousands of ideas in a single ideation session, and if you become a good lateral thinker, you’ll come up with great ideas constantly by playing with strange connections and intertwining ideas. Having an idea is the easy part. Bringing that idea to life – and then shipping the result – is the hard part. Students of design love design thinking because it celebrates creative thinking. But it’s dangerous, because it abdicates creative doing. A good idea on a post it note is a good idea on a post it note; it doesn’t have any impact on behavior change, and it certainly doesn’t shepherd forward social change.

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?

Kolko: Do they? My experience is a little different. C-level executives that I’ve interacted with have very strong ideas, and very strong personalities, but are so busy they can’t actually attend to the execution details. I’ve found middle managers to be much more obnoxious about micro-managing, and as a generalization, much more worried and anxious. I have no hierarchy in my organization; all of the designers report to me, and all are equal. My role as a VP is to get out of the way, and get the distractions out of the way.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Well-Designed. When and why did you decide to write it?

Kolko: I was at MyEdu, a startup that got acquired by Blackboard. My role at MyEdu was a hybrid, living halfway between product and design. We drove an empathetic design process, and as a result, our product was a success. Simultaneously, I observed many of my friends having similar experiences. Yet in the workshops I run and conferences I speak at, I saw a thirst for this type of thinking – many individual contributors were aware that there was a different way of doing things, but had no experience with it.

I wrote my previous three books for me – to learn something and synthesize it in a way I could understand. I wrote this book for others – to communicate what was baked into our design process, in order to help other people improve their products and, subsequently, improve the human condition.

Morris: What are the major barriers to humanizing educational technology?

In a word, people. We have a variety of experiences, perspectives, and interests, and those clash. We’ve established a society here in the US (and in much of the world) that values logic, linear thinking, measurement, and a rational approach to problem solving. That’s been successful in, for example, advancing our quality of life, improving safety, and lowering the cost of consumable goods. But this perspective is troublesome.

First, it creates a pseudo-framework for making decisions. If a decision isn’t rational, it’s a bad decision. That means that intuition, testing, and exploration are all approachde tentatively, and often drowned out by a larger voice of “common sense.” Next, this analytical perspective tends to demand telemetry and measurement in order to “prove” that an idea is a good one. But it’s often difficult – or impossible – to measure emotional appeal, and that’s central to humanization.

Finally, for a variety of reasons, rigid engineering logic seems to go hand in hand with features. But people don’t need features. They need relationships, and supporters, and challenges, and dreams. When you start thinking in features, it’s hard to stop. But when you stop and focus on empathy, you can start to craft products that are emotionally meaningful.

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Jon cordially invites you to visit these sources of resources:

His website link

His Amazon page link

The Well-Designed/HBR link

Blackboard link

VIMEO video link

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