What​ ​if​ ​Design​ ​Was​ ​the​ ​Key​ ​to​ ​Successful​ ​Product​ ​Management?

A review of Jon Kolko’s Book “Well Designed: How to Use Empathy to Create Products People”

Who would have imagined that a thermostat could be sexy? Nest and other creative
companies were able to create fantastic products in fairly unattractive markets. Product
managers have wondered about the secrets behind those modern success stories.

A Radically Contrasting Perspective on Product Management

Jon Kolko goes behind the scenes in his guide for product managers called Well Designed and presents empathy as the secret ingredient to successful product development. The book delivers a radically contrasting perspective on product management, by providing an empathy-focused process and inviting readers to self-reflect on their practice.

Because there is no higher education in product management, business literature has been brimming over with best practices based on informal experience. This literature revolves around efficiency, execution speed and the well-known “ship fast and iterate” doctrine. Kolko bucks the general trend by presenting a design-driven product management process that revolves around empathy. It is pictured as the driving force behind successful products, and allows product managers to “experience a new level of emotional resonance and a unique connection with the people who use their products”.

Design-Driven Framework

To present his theory, Kolko splits the book in two parts. First, he initiates a discussion that defines the two key concepts that will be used throughout, using strong academic references and relevant analogies. The first key concept is design thinking which is presented through the lens of Johansson Sköldberg’s designerly thinking. Second, he defines product management by setting up an analogy with the responsibilities of a brand manager at Gillette, resonating with a business audience potentially unfamiliar with this emerging field. Then, he presents his original framework, sequenced in four stages all based upon empathetic ethos:

1. Finding product-market fit through community signals (broad)

2. Gaining behavioral insights at a human level (local)

3. Creating a product strategy based on emotional value (strategic)

4. Crafting the product details emphasizing on visualisation (operational)

While most of his theory can be viewed as a practical approach to product management, he dedicates his final chapter to various methods of evangelisation of this novel process within organisations.

Emotion at the heart of successful products

Kolko’s framework is unique because it uses concepts which are more prevalent in art and design than product management. However, his way of presenting those concepts is especially effective, as he provides rationale, step-by-step instructions, real life examples and a clear call to action.

Emotion, for instance, is a fundamental notion in Kolko’s framework. He describes the rationale behind its use in the context of product management, helping the reader recognize emotion as a true driver for value. His key statement supports that the value proposition of a product should be developed towards the feelings it would generate in the user rather than the skills, abilities or revenue it might provide him with. And while bringing emotion into digital products may appear challenging, Kolko enables the reader to deliver on that promise by offering clear and detailed instructions, ranging from concept generation to implementation.

Additionally, Kolko raises the excitement in his audience by showcasing success stories of companies that have put emotion at the center of their development processes. I still remember the opening statement of the book where he discusses the success of Nest. He presents the smart home company as innovators for cooling and heating systems, a market segment that he describes as ”probably the least exciting ever”. Yet, he points out that the company manages to earn reviews using adjectives such as “sexy”, “beautiful”, or “revolutionary”. By prioritizing emotion over engineering or marketing agendas, Nest was able to create products that people could relate to, like a good friend they could rely on.

An Invitation to Self-Reflection

Like emotion, Kolko presents various concepts that are rooted in the foreign field of design. However, by doing so he serves a bigger purpose than establishing his framework. He invites product managers to look beyond their own scope and reflect on their practice. Product managers are expected to constantly shift between zooming in to polishing product details and zooming out to strategic long term considerations. This vertical movement, nonetheless, needs to be accompanied by a more horizontal one, moving across companies and industries. Well Designed provides the means to follow this movement. Each chapter is accompanied by interviews from experienced practitioners, which offers the reader a repertoire of profiles, structural organisations and stories that will allow him to extend his understanding of the field, and eventually become more versatile and adaptable in his own practice.

My personal experience has led me to believe that such exploration in novel methodologies can be tremendously valuable. A year ago, I got hired as a product manager for a Fortune 500 company. The team I joined had well-established processes in place, from strategy definition all the way to quality assurance. Yet, I decided to pursue the aforementioned movement and expanded my horizons towards the field of design. It led me to realise that the feedback loop with our users was lacking depth and consistency. I introduced the idea of conducting in-context observation sessions with a some of our users (that included the heads of innovation at Mars or Visa to mention a few). Given their high profile, the idea was not well received by my company. They worried that taking up time on their busy schedules would jeopardize the strong but delicate relationships they had built over the years. The company eventually decided to pursue my initiative. It resulted in product features that were a much better fit to our clients needs and led to stronger relationships between our companies because our users felt heard and cared about.

Closing Thoughts

A reader of Well-Designed might be tempted to swallow its material all at once and promptly conclude that if not applied from beginning to end, the methodology that is presented would be useless. My experience led me to a different approach of the book. Rather than vainly trying to get a grasp of the book in one sitting, one needs to be pragmatic and try to gradually incorporate those methodologies into his own professional environment. Who knows, a baby step might lead you to create the next ____ .