Designers can do anything

Jon Kolko on how empathy, theory, and tactical skills can put the next generation of designers on a path to success.

Design principles are being applied in all aspects of business today — they are no longer limited to graphic design, product design, web design, or even experience design. I recently spoke with Jon Kolko, vice president of consumer design at Blackboard, founder and director of Austin Center for Design, and author, about the skills designers need today and the curriculum formula to help them succeed.

In our conversation, Kolko talked about how a balance of process, empathy, theory, and tactical design skills can prepare designers for success in more traditional design roles and beyond. Kolko is a firm believer in an empathy-based, user-first approach to design. User-first is not unique, but Kolko advocates getting to know the user before even conceiving of the product:

“The switch to an empathy focus is actually really easy. You need to watch behavior, so that means actually watching people do things. We talk about watching people work, play, and live because sometimes the things they do are actually not that utility driven… So, depending on what your product is, you need to start to get to where people are actually doing things. It’s like a hair away from doing an interview, but that behavioral hair makes all the difference because when you conduct an interview, you get retrospective behavior anecdotes that tend to gloss over specifics; they make false estimates and generalizations, and they don’t have that rich nuance and outlier that you can start to build insights around. Those specific insights then go to drive your new product ideas.”

At Austin Center for Design, the curriculum mixes this empathy-based approach with the traditional software development approach (design, test, iterate), with a healthy dose of design theory. Kolko explained:

“When you study theory, it actually fast forwards your experience. What I mean is, it gives you a sense of foundation upon which to build design decisions, even though you don’t actually have specific one-off examples that you can leverage. So, when students become familiar with theories of, say, bonded rationality or cognitive psychology principles, they can start to leverage these as rationalizations for making design decisions. That has value for them — it helps improve the quality of their work. It also has value for all the different people that they’re interacting with as the design comes to life. Like how stakeholders need that storyline around why what we’re doing, which has never been done before, is the right thing to do.”

The end result is that a well-rounded designer can succeed anywhere. They can work in a more traditional design or UX role, or they can apply what they’ve learned and pursue something completely new and different. Kolko stressed the importance of autonomy — and noted that rules are yours for the making:

“The value proposition or promise to my students is really simple. It’s autonomy…the biggest challenge that the students have or the alumni have, is actually having the confidence to pursue something that’s untested. We ease into that, and it usually takes about a year to two years for students to internalize what they’ve learned, reflect on it, and say, ‘You know what? I’m really friggin good at this. I’m good at the theory, I’m good at the practice, I have a process that’s repeatable, I don’t actually need to be constrained by what jobs are available, and I can go make whatever job I want.’ It’s really exciting to see it happen. But there’s a great Steve Jobs quote that I’ll paraphrase, which is: The rules are all made up. Right? Somebody made them all up, so you can make up your own, too.”

You can listen to the entire interview in the player above, or through our O’Reilly SoundCloud stream.

This interview is part of our ongoing investigation into Experience Design and Business.

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