Well-Designed: How to Use Empathy to Create Products People Love

Well-Designed: How to Use Empathy to Create Products People LoveWell-Designed: How to Use Empathy to Create Products People Love by Jon Kolko
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a pretty great book. Written by Jon Kolko (founder and director of Austin Center for Design), it is, as the title suggests a book about using empathy to create better products.

Well Designed is very much a product persons view of the world. It’s easy to read, and forgoes jargon. It is also very well structured, and employs an interesting narrative device. Each chapter opens with an imagined scenario featuring a product manager at different points in the process. This continues as a story through the book. This is followed by some solid practical advice, with some discussion around process before closing out the chapter with an interview. These interviews are pretty illuminating, as they show a good variation on approach depending on the culture of the organisation (be it engineering led or product driven).

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on behavioural insights. The practical tips for exploding research was fantastic. Jon breaks his process down into geeky steps, which was a great little takeaway which I will try to clumsily surmise now:

Essentially, he suggests spending time with the data you collect. This means doing the boring admin jobs yourself instead of offloading the work to someone else (like a poor intern, or junior designer). Transcribing user interviews helps you to get to know the people better. All of this sounds so obvious in retrospect, but , much like annotating wireframes, this is something that is frequently overlooked, or is considered not a valuable use of time.

If I had criticism, aside from a bit of a narrow selection of interviewees (it would have been nice to hear from a couple of ladies), it would be one that could be levelled widely at the industry. It feels like we are far too quick to dismiss design history. The following snippet comes from early in the book:

The word “design” has been used to describe craftsmanship in furniture, aesthetics in posters, and the styling of physical products, like toasters or cars. Historically, designers made things look good. For many years, this made designers feel as though their contribution was superficial, as they would be called in when a product was nearly complete and asked to “just skin it.” Now design aspires to be bigger than aesthetics.

This is a sweeping statement, and is used to illustrate a broader point around certain attitudes towards designing software. Frankly it is probably a little unfair for me to jump on, as I don’t believe it was intended perhaps how I took it. Good design has always aspired to be more than aesthetics.

Historically, I’d argue designers have done way more than make things look good. The Tube map designed by Harry Beck in 1931 wasn’t a revelation because it looked good (although it did that too!). It favoured clarity of information, over topological accuracy. Beck understood that passengers on the Tube were not interested in the geographical landscape, but in knowing how to get from station to station.

This is a minor gripe I have with this very good book, that I have turned unjustifiably turned into a mini rant.

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