An Interview with Jon Kolko, Partner at Modernist Studio
Jon Kolko is a partner at Modernist Studio, an organization that specializes in strategy, innovation, and design. Formerly, he served as the executive director of product design at GE Aviation and vice president of design at Blackboard, the largest educational software company in the world. Kolko is the founder and director of the Austin Center for Design and the author of four books on design, including Well Designed: How to Use Empathy to Create Products People Love.Kolko recently spoke with François Stragier, associate director in BCG’s Paris office and a core member of the Technology Advantage practice, about the value of empathy in building products and the power of "design thinking" as a tool for industry disruption.
Jon, your book Well Designed: How to Use Empathy to Create Products People Love focuses on design thinking. Could you please summarize the concept?
Design thinking has become the phrase used to describe the process of design, rather than the artifact of design. That process typically includes ethnographic research (spending time with the people you are trying to help), synthesis (making sense of data and interpreting to find insight), and ideation (making things through an iterative process). The design process is both divergent and convergent, in that it requires looking at a broad set of ideas and then narrowing to a specific idea. And it requires nonlinear thinking to make nonobvious leaps.
Why should executives at Fortune 500 companies care about design thinking? Is it related to digital transformation?
This process can be applied strategically, to transform how work is done, how an organization structures and views itself, and the way a company engages with the market. Fortune companies are now broadly embracing this form of thinking as a complement to more traditional or established methods of viewing the market.
You assert that product design should start with empathy. Isn't it a bit in opposition to the image that we have of great tech leaders, such as Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, or Marc Benioff, who impose their vision on us, asserting that "customers don't know what they want until we've shown them"?
Product design is about building empathy with a target audience. What's unique about design as compared to market research is that the goal of the research is not predictive. We aren't looking for the market to tell us what to build, and we aren't looking to validate that an idea will be successful. Instead, design research is focused on provocation: on driving towards new ideas that will fill a market or a user need. Design isn't about asking customers what they want, and empathetic research isn't about viewing what they want. Instead, it's about gathering data that can be interpreted in order to drive towards insight. The responsibility lies on the designer to actually frame the market need and conceive of the new solution by translating the research to insight and the insight to new ideas.
For corporations, many digital projects will be implemented by the IT department. But most CIOs and their staff don't spend much time with employees or clients. Does this mean they cannot design a good product?
I'm a big advocate for the design process, but it's pretty naive to claim that any process is the sole way to achieve success. People and companies who don't use or leverage empathetic research have driven new products and services, helped people, and generated revenue. CIOs that are building products without engaging with the market can be just as successful as those who spend time with customers and users. But some methods can act as a hedge. In my experience, companies that include design as a strategic competency are better prepared to manage the ambiguity of new-product development. They are able to make sense of conflicting information, bring together competing ideas into a new synthesized whole, and identify latent needs more quickly.
What advice would you give to CIOs? How can they push for more disruption and more value?
If a CIO is looking to drive disruption in their respective industry, my suggestion would be to bring in a creative team and give them the runway to drive a creative process. This process is messy: it isn't linear, the end isn't clear, and the way to get to value encounters twists and turns. And the process may fail. Innovation is risky, and the team that you trust to produce new disruptive ideas may simply not work. All of this means that you'll need to help that team be successful by being patient and by trusting the creative process. Start small, give the team the resources it needs, and sit back and observe. You'll learn how design can help your business, and you'll gain clarity into complexity.
At a Glance