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This week we're reading: Well Designed: How to use empathy to create products people love

By Matt Boffey, founder

October 21, 2015 | 4 min read

Every Wednesday, London Strategy Unit's Matt Boffey reads one of the most influential books from the world of innovation, marketing or creativity so you don't have to. This week's book of choice is Well Designed: How to use empathy to create products people love (2013) by Jon Kolko.

Why have we chosen this book?

Because making products people love to interact with is big business. Nest’s $3.2bn valuation is proof that great design can make even the most mundane products (thermostats and fire alarms) something people love to use.

What’s the original thought or argument?

That product management should be design-led and aimed at creating products that connect with users emotionally. For Kolko, this is all about designing for feelings, not features - giving your product a personality and soul that connects with users rather than introducing just another layer of functionality into their lives.

If you want to look smart, just read

Chapter one, which explores product-market fit in the context of empathetic design. Kolko argues that brands should never use competitors as benchmarks for their product’s functionality. Instead he advises that product managers should observe communities of users and use signals from them to guide the product functionality.

You might want to skip

The lengthy interviews with product managers from startups like AirBnB and Are You Watching This?! These feel a lot like they’re just filling out Well Designed rather than adding anything to Kolko’s argument.

Why trust this author?

Kolko is vice president of design at Blackboard Inc., a startup that creates design-focused educational solutions. As well as sitting on countless international design committees, Kolko also teaches at the acclaimed Savannah College of Art and Design.

Once you’ve read this you don’t need to read

Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup. Kolko poses an alternative to Ries’ iterative, data-driven approach to product management, arguing that designers should always aim for maximum usability, even if it delays launch. Instead of responding to mass usage statistics, Kolko argues that design should use extreme users as a guide to what the usage patterns of tomorrow might look like.

Why should this stay on your bookshelf?

Because one side effect of our obsession with big data is that marketing has lost sight of the observable individual. Well Designed reminds us to restore that individual to the centre of product management and design for truly beautiful everyday experiences

What’s the one thing you should do differently after reading this book?

Whatever you’re designing, give your product a personality. Kolko argues that audience are essentially in dialogue with the products they use, so it makes sense for designers to think about their products as having characteristics. This stretches into product marketing, comms and digital content - everything surrounding your product should convey its own particular personality.

Best quote in the whole book?

“Start-ups like AirBnB and large corporations like JetBlue or Starbucks have proven that industry disruption is possible by providing deep, meaningful, engagement to the people who use their products or services. This engagement 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.”

Matt Boffey is the founder of London Strategy Unit, which you can follow on Twitter @LSUsocial


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