Six Questions from Kicker: Kim Goodwin

In anticipation of our exciting summer design event Device Design Day, we’ve brought back our beloved Six Questions series.  For our seventh Six Questions profile, Kicker interviews D3 speaker Kim Goodwin.

Kim Goodwin is the author of the bestselling book, Designing for the Digital Age. Kim is currently consulting for several clients in aviation, consumer electronics, and retail. She spent most of the last decade as Vice-President, Design and General Manager at Cooper, leading an integrated practice of interaction, visual, and industrial designers and the development of the acclaimed Cooper U design curriculum. Kim has led projects involving a tremendous range of design problems, including web sites, complex analytical and enterprise applications, phones, medical devices, services, and even organizations. Her clients and employers have included everything from one-man startups to the world’s largest companies, as well as universities and government agencies. This range of experience and a passion for teaching have led to Kim’s popularity as an author and as a speaker at conferences and companies around the world.

1. What is the most cherished product in your life? Why?

To me, “cherishing” something means not just loving it, but also taking great pains to keep it from harm. A well-designed, well-engineered product can be used without special care, and the best products, in my view, actually get better with a little wear and tear. In other words, I believe in products that people love, but don’t have to cherish. If I had to choose one human-made thing that comes closest, though, I’d say it’s my 1910 Craftsman house. It meets the first condition: I love it. Why? Because it’s well-made and well-designed—a clear precursor to the open flow and clean lines of mid-century modernism, but with a warmth and modesty sometimes lacking in later architecture. It also mostly meets the second condition: although I treat it as my home and not as a museum piece, I do expend a lot of effort in caring for it. That’s not just because a house in the Bay Area is a huge investment, or because a 100-year-old house needs TLC, though both are true. Houses, unlike most products, are meant to be around for generations, so I feel a need to care for both the structural and aesthetic integrity of the place.

I find it interesting not one of the products I considered in response to this question was a piece of software. I’d bet I’m not alone in that. I suspect that’s because software is intangible, whereas affection is so often a tactile, sensory experience. Hugging a child, pruning a plant, or polishing an antique table (or, perhaps, an iPhone screen) all engage more of our senses than even the most riveting video game. I think this is one of the biggest challenges in designing software-driven experiences: we have to make them emotionally engaging and not merely usable, and we have to do that with a pretty limited set of tools

2. What’s the one product you wish you’d designed, and why?

Do I wish I’d designed a certain amazing product because it’s cool, or would make me rich and famous, or because it made a big difference in the world? Not really. What’s important is that those great products get designed and built by someone. Mostly, the products I wish I’d designed are the ones that are still hard to use. Take digital SLRs, for instance. They’re complex, ergonomically awful, and they still use a conceptual model based on film. That’s a design problem I’d love to take on.

3. What excites you about being a designer? Why do you keep doing it?

Sometimes I get excited about designing a specific product, like a safer hospital infusion pump that will save lives. I get excited about working with great clients, too—the ones who understand design’s value and are motivated to build terrific products. I also love to see users get excited about a product I’ve designed. To be honest, though, the thing that excites me most about design is the act of creating a great, tangible solution where there was just a blank whiteboard or list of vague requirements before. When I can look at a solution and think, yes, this solves the problem, it’s elegant, it’s engaging…that’s the reward.

4. When do you first remember thinking of yourself as a designer?

It wasn’t when I got my first job as a designer, I felt I had to achieve some degree of skill before I deserved the label. I’m not even sure where I had set that internal bar, but it took at least a couple of years. The beauty of interaction design being a relatively new profession is that it’s been easy for people to get into the field. The problem with interaction design being a relatively new profession is the same thing…there are lots of people with the job title who have great intentions and no idea what they’re doing. This can affect perceptions of the profession as a whole, which is one of many reasons I think it’s important to evangelize good techniques.

5. What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned, and who taught it to you?

The most important lesson is one I’ve learned from various clients over the years, though most had no idea they were teaching it: design is a consensus-building activity. Because the design of a product is so much more visible and universally understandable than the business model, the engineering, or the requirements, everyone on a product team needs to feel they had an opportunity to contribute to and influence the outcome. I’ve done plenty of projects where the emphasis was on cramming lots of design into very little time, which meant having fewer collaborative sessions, involving fewer stakeholders, and giving people less time to digest. Those projects have been the least likely to make it all the way through to built products and the most likely to result in a lot of thrash. This doesn’t mean I advocate design by committee—design needs to be designer-led, but you can’t shortchange the collaboration or the cheerleading.

6. What are 5 things all designers should know?

1) Know the literature. Although design is a generative discipline, designers should keep up with what researchers in related analytical fields (such as HCI, human factors, cognitive psychology) are learning. It astonishes me when designers argue over well-researched principles as if they are matters of opinion. CHI membership is cheap, and the online archives can prevent guesswork and arguments about a huge variety of issues.

2) Know the users. No doubt this is mom and apple pie for most. Is it sometimes safe to design for yourself? Sure, if most users are like you…yet it’s always best to do some research.

3) Know your limits. No one is an expert at everything. Good designers know when to ask for help; in my view, this is one trait that separates “senior” designers from the rest.

4) Know the stakeholders. Learn who they are and how they think. Anticipate their questions and pet peeves. Identify the ones who will help you clear roadblocks.

5) Know what role you want and act as if it’s yours. There is almost always room to expand on perceptions of what a designer’s role should be, but asking someone to hand it to you seldom works. Demonstrate your value first.

Don’t miss Kim Goodwin’s presentation “Convergent Products, Convergent Process” at Device Design Day,  August 20 in San Francisco.