A funny thing happened in product development circles after the iPhone’s launch. Oh, it had been simmering along for a while in some circles, but when the Phone From Cupertino hit the shelves my company started hearing the same thing from almost every one of our product development clients. Where’s our iPhone? Why can’t we make the iPhone of our industry? And it wasn’t just consumer companies, either. We hear it from product managers and executives in all kinds of companies we never expected. Internal IT apps. CRM. System management. Everybody wants to be Apple.
Maybe this was new in the product managers’ offices or the C-suites, but it wasn’t in the labs and design studios. Every developer, every designer and every engineer dreams of creating something extraordinary—something so great that people crave it, long for it, line up just for the privilege of buying it. Marketers call it “a must have,” “compelling” or “insanely great”.
But most of the rest of us just call it cool.
In fact, cool has evolved into a marketing imperative, the uber requirement for many products, especially in the consumer product space. But cool is hard to pin down—there’s no accepted way to define it, measure it or plan for it.
I’m not really talking about cool as a pop culture phenomenon. There’s been a ton of ink spilled about cool—and the “hunt” for cool—as applied to trends in media, celebrities and fashion. I’m more interested here in cool as it applies to product development and design. Even though there’s a lot of money at stake, there’s been little methodical attention paid to cool as a product requirement.
Not that there is a shortage of opinion and hype on the subject, of course. Most accounts you’ll find in the popular press or in the blogosphere focus on some of the more obvious aspects of product coolness. “Design” is often described as the magic contributor to cool, but mostly what’s being referred to is aesthetics—basically, industrial design. Words like “simple,” “sleek” and “streamlined” are often associated with cool products. A sort of “extreme” usefulness also accompanies popular descriptions of cool: intuitive use, doing tasks in a completely new way, doing multiple tasks at once. It’s also very cool to disrupt an existing business model, and both Apple and Google took explicit advantage of the same outsider rebellion that made James Dean cool some 60 years ago—and still cool today. And really, the borderline hero worship in the business press of executives like Jobs, Ive and Google crew isn’t far from Hollywood’s heyday.
Unfortunately, it’s really hard to know what to do with these descriptions of cool. “Make it look good,” “put lots of features in,” “make it easy to use”… these don’t sound like a very good way to capture cool for your product. The mythologizing of CEOs and design gurus is equally unappealing. Do I magically get a cool product by hiring cool people to design it? As product development professionals, we really need a more practical way to think about the problem.
One approach is to see if the emotional appeal of a product can be harnessed in some way. This is the premise behind a handful of frameworks and subjective measurements for emotional engagement that have emerged from research into Emotional Design. Pieter Desmet’s Product Emotion Measurement Instrument (PrEmo) is perhaps the best-known example. PrEmo presents subjects with a product and asks which of several cartoon representations of emotional responses best matches the subject’s own response. The emotions portrayed by the cartoon characters are based on previous research on what emotions are evoked by compelling products and services.
Neuromarketing is a much higher tech way to get the same basic indication. Based on advances in brain science and magnetic resonance imagery, neuromarketing techniques identify characteristic patterns of brain activity induced by “known” cool products. It then looks for these same characteristic patterns when subjects are presented with new products or concepts under development. Both the hype and investment around neuromarketing is pretty impressive right now, but the jury is currently out on its reliability and usefulness. It’s definitely an area to keep an eye on, though.
But there’s a problem with both of these approaches—even if they could someday be perfected, they only tell you after the design fact whether you’ve actually met your cool requirement. They say nothing about how to design for cool and what to take into consideration in the process. From a development point of view, this is a much more important question, the one that brings me full-circle back to my clients’ problem: what are the key considerations in designing something cool?
I recently took part in an extensive design research project aimed at answering that question. In more than 60 in-depth contextual field interviews and in a follow-up survey answered by hundreds more participants, we investigated what made products and services cool. While I can’t claim to be completely objective about it, I do think the findings are particularly relevant.
We found that cool is rooted deep in the core human emotion—and pursuit—of joy. In this sense, we find the same general interplay with personal development and emotion as the Emotional Design researchers. We found joy has two key aspects. ”Joy in Life” is the joy that cool products and services bring to us by fulfilling four fundamental human motivations: the sense of Accomplishment, the need for Connection, the formation of Identity, and the pleasure of Sensation. ”Joy in Use” describes three key factors for how design supports these fundamental human motivations. Must-have products always provide an experience of “Direct into Action,” allowing us to get things done almost effortlessly. The better a design supports this unstoppable momentum of life, the cooler the experience. Conversely, reducing what we called the “Hassle Factor” makes for more compelling use as well. Encompassing traditional usability, “hassle” also includes acquisition, ownership and eventual discard. Last comes the Delta: cool products build on lifelong experience, habits and knowledge in a way that presents a significant improvement, but still feels comfortable and natural.
What’s perhaps most interesting about this model is that it offers the ability to translate core human emotions and motivations to the design space in a way that is actionable. It tells you what specifically to pay attention to during design in a way that neuromarketing and emotion measures do not. It’s a start in making design for cool practically useful for product managers.
I’m passionately interested in this entire aspect of development—and I’m interested in your experiences and opinions in this area as well. Is design for cool more luck than plan for you? How do you capture the “soft” requirement to be cool in your design documentation? How does your organization test for cool?