Well-Designed: A book review by Bob Morris

Well-DesignedWell-Designed: How to Use Empathy to Create Products People Love
Jon Kolko
Harvard Business Review Press (2014)

How to focus on people, celebrate emotional value, and drive optimism through lateral and divergent thinking

I share Jon Kolko’s high regard for companies such as Apple and Nest whose customers describe their experiences with them using adjectives such as “beautiful, “Awesome,” “drop-dead gorgeous, “amazing,” and even “revolutionary.” They are obviously what Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba characterize as “customer evangelists.” In our family, we own just about every Apple product and three of our homes have a Nest “learning thermostat.”

Kolko observes, “What makes these companies unique is that their products are the result of a design process, and it is this process that has led to unprecedented media fascination and consumer adoption…This engagement [by consumers] is achieved by designing products that seem as though they have a personality or even a soul. These products feel less like manufactured artifacts and more like good friends.”

I discussed this subject with two of my sons and our daughter, recalling my own “good friends” in childhood: Radio Flyer wagon, Lionel train set, Schwinn American bicycle, Wilson Ball Hawk baseball glove, and a Red Rider BB gun. Our sons then cited Etch A Sketch, Rock a Stack, G.I. Joe, Tonka Trucks, Hot Wheels, SuperBall, and Star Wars action figures. As for our daughter, her “good friends” included Barbie and Ken dolls, Cabbage Patch Kids, a fully-decorated doll house, and a toy iron. They and I can recall specific situations and how much we enjoyed our engagement with what proved to be classic toys. You can thus imagine how much they and I later enjoyed the three Toy Story films.

These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Kolko’s coverage:

o What Is Design Thinking? (16-21)
o Bringing Design Thinking to Product Management (23-26)
o What Is “The Market”? (38-42)
o Shifts in attitude among customers (46-48)
o Attributes of community (53-55)
o Behavioral insights (71-111)
o Analytics for patterns of product usage (80-82)
o Product strategy (113-138)
o Product stance and design strategy (119-126)
o Design strategy (126-129)
o RUWT?!: Are You Watching This?! (130-137)
o Defining the Product (140-160)
o Organizational alignment (146-151)
o Decision product (169-176)
o Shipping (177-215)
o Operational Capabilities (178-187)
o Design process (217-218)

Kolko also inserts seven interviews of Joe Gebbia, chief product designer at Airbnb (26-34); Josh Elman, principal at Greylock Partners, a VC firm (59-70); Gary Chou, teacher of entrepreneurial design (95-111): Mark Phillip, CEO of Are You Watching This?!, a sports analytics firm 129-138), Frank Lyman, MyEdu’s chief product officer (164-176); and Alex Reinart, head of product at Foursquare (205-215). Their varied backgrounds and real-world experiences enable them to enrich the abundance of information, insights, and counsel with regard to how to use empathy to create products people love.

I commend Jon Kolko on the wealth of information, insights, and counsel that he provides within his lively and eloquent narrative. He succeeds brilliantly when introducing and then explaining a design-led product development process (based on deep, empathetic research) from idea to execution. Also, how a product-market fit establishes a community of engaged, indeed devoted consumers, and then how to gain valuable behavioral insights from interactions with people through ethnographic research. The framework for all this is rock-solid but sufficiently flexible to accommodate adjustments over time as competitive marketplace realities change.

I wholly agree with his concluding remarks: “The broad applicability of the design process makes it powerful. We are becoming product managers, and our best process for success is a process of design — a creative process built on a platform of empathy.”

Those who share my high regard for this volume are urged to check out Solving Problems with Design Thinking: Ten Stories of What Works, co-authored by Jeanne Liedtka, Andrew King, and Kevin Bennett, as well as Roger Martin’s The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage and Rotman on Design: The Best on Design Thinking from Rotman Magazine, co-edited by Martin and Karen Christensen.

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