Designing products for your customers' emotional needs is hardly a radical concept.

Yet it's routinely neglected in the product-development process. And if you disagree with that premise, you haven't tried buying a new subway pass lately. Here's how Jon Kolko, vice president of consumer design at Blackboard and the founder and director of Austin Center for Design, describes it in his new book:

If you observe people using the subway, you'll see a number of flaws in the ticket-purchasing process that could be improved by design. Tourists may not understand the process, so they may spend a disproportionate amount of time at a ticket kiosk. This tells you that the process is too difficult for first-time users. People may juggle their coffee, mobile phone, and wallet. This tells you that the kiosk needs a surface for people to put things on. 

You might think: That's obvious. I don't need a designer to tell me that. 

You're right. And that's one of the larger points of Kolko's book, Well-Designed: How to Use Empathy to Create Products People Love, due out next week. The book's message, in three sentences, is this: There is no substitute for the customer insights you can gain by observing actual customer behavior in authentic settings. Ethnography is a skill, but it's not rocket science. You can do it if you take the time.  

If anyone would know, it's Kolko. In his role at Blackboard, and formerly at MyEdu, a startup focused on helping students get jobs, which Blackboard acquired, he spent a "ton of time with college students in dorm rooms, looking through their bookbags and apartments [with their permission]," he told Inc. in a recent phone interview.

His ethnographic research of college students was all in the interest of assessing the emotional needs underpinning their actions. 

"We watched them watch TV," he said. "And what came out of that was insight about their decision making. It was not utilitarian; it was emotional. College students are filled with anxiety. Around what school to go to, what major to pick, what classes to take, and what job am I going to get."

All of which helped Kolko build MyEdu into a platform that college students--more than one million of them at more than 800 schools--actually use. He has seen firsthand that a product or service's ability to minimize anxiety can influence customer decisions far more profoundly than its functions and features. 

To illustrate this concept in his book, Kolko leads the reader through a fictional (but realistic and instructive) design task. Joe McQuaid, chief product officer of a small startup called LiveWell, faces this challenge: creating a software-based tool to help people understand their health and wellness.

Of course, health and wellness is a broad category. How, then, can LiveWell create a differentiated product for a customer segment that wants one? Kolko suggests using a 2x2 matrix. Using this particular matrix, McQuaid's team quickly scans both the factual attributes (population, on the y-axis) and emotional attributes (accompanied by introspection, on the x-axis) of 16 potential customer segments for the health-and-wellness tool.

Looking again at this matrix, you'll see there's some proverbial "white space" for innovation in the upper-left and bottom-right sections. That white space could indicate a market opportunity. On the other hand, there might be a reason nothing is there, such as low consumer demand or high barriers to entry. The larger idea is that the 2x2 matrix can help you and your team visualize, compare, and discuss the potential of multiple segments. 

Diving deeper, you might wonder about the takeaways of charting these segments by an emotional attribute such as "accompanied by introspection." The payoff is comparable to the one Kolko realized by recognizing how anxiety was a key driver of student decisions. Here's how Gary Chou, formerly of New York City venture capital firm Union Square Ventures and currently a teacher in entrepreneurial design at the School of Visual Arts, explains it in Kolko's book, using blogging platforms as an analog: 

Tumblr is not a blogging platform. It's a personal place for self-expression. It just happens to resemble what you and I call a blogging platform, because that's the dominant model by which we express ourselves on the Web and in social functions. If I were to look at it from a functional perspective, I would have built comments and followers. But when David Karp built Tumblr, he didn't want people to feel bad. If you are building a positive place for self-expression, you don't want people to feel bad.

If you launch a blog, and you only have one or two followers, why would you want to publicly advertise that? It'll make you look like you have no friends. But you can have a great experience on Tumblr if you only have a few friends, because you aren't exposed.

Now apply Chou's observation to LiveWell's challenge. Tumblr lured users through a conscientiously designed empathy for the vulnerability of sharing and self-expression. It recognized that not every blogger wants to broadcast her opinions to the entire world for feedback. It recognized that what many people wanted was a Web-based journal or diary. Not entirely private, but far from entirely public.

That same insight--designing a product to suit a person's desire for privacy or introversion--is pertinent to the health and wellness category too. Some people like to exercise in public group settings. Others prefer solitude. Some people want a high level of rigorous feedback from trainers and coaches. Others prefer a do-it-yourself approach. Some people like to strut around in tight workout clothes. Others are completely ashamed of their appearance. 

"It's exactly the same principle at play," says Kolko. "It's not necessarily analytical or even rational. It's the emotional heart of the matter."

Getting to the emotional heart of the matter--which includes addressing customers' deepest feelings of introversion--is a core design principle. Office furniture designers are supremely cognizant of it. For instance, at Allsteel, a designer and maker of office furniture based in Muscatine, Iowa, there's a general belief that every office should contain six types of workspaces:

1. The Open "I"--a place where you work alone, but people can see you working.
2. The Open "We"--a place where one team can work, and people can see them working.
3. The Open "Shared"--a place where many teams can potentially work together, and people can see them working.
4. The Closed "I"--a place where you work alone, in private.
5. The Closed "We"--a place where one team can work privately.
6. The Closed "Shared"--a place where many teams can potentially work together, yet still have privacy from other people in the office.

From Allsteel's perspective, an ideal office is a place where you can work in private or in public, by yourself or in a group. Kolko's book echoes this sentiment. It provides a welcome reminder that respecting customers' emotional needs should be your top product-development priority--no matter what you're designing.

Published on: Nov 14, 2014