Six Questions from Kicker: Karen Kaushansky

In honor of Device Design Day 2011, we’ve partnered with Core 77 to profile our exciting line up of speakers, and ask them our  Six Questions. For our fifth interview of the series, we’ve talked with Karen Kaushansky.

Karen Kaushansky is a Principal Interaction Designer at Jawbone where she creates rich interactive experiences for Jawbone devices. Karen is formerly of Microsoft/Tellme and is a 14 year veteran of the speech recognition industry. Over the years, her work has spanned from traditional phone-based speech recognition applications, to voice biometrics, to multimodal experiences which included Ford’s in-car Traffic, Directions and Information Services , and Microsoft’s speech-integrated mobile phone applications.

Now, Karen works with the team at Jawbone to create products and services for the mobile lifestyle unparalleled in their innovation, ease-of-use and sophistication of design.  Jawbone is the creator of an award-winning, best-selling line of intelligent Bluetooth headsets (Jawbone ERA & ICON),  and of JAMBOX, the first intelligent wireless speaker and speakerphone.

Karen lives in San Francisco with her husband and Goldendoodle Mac, is an ice hockey player and is looking to hire.

She’ll be sharing lessons  at D3 learned from creating audio experiences for various Jawbone products and design guidelines that can be applied to any consumer device that offers feedback to its users.

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

I have family heirlooms that I cherish, for example a sterling silver enamel ring passed on from my grandmother. But I interpreted this a little to mean: something I use all the time or can’t live without. I can tell you that I use my good old fashion alarm clock every day. It’s plugged in so I know it will work reliably to wake me up each morning and then it’s one button to turn on the alarm. I know people use their smartphones as alarms but it’s like 4 to 6 steps to turn on the alarm. This device has one, ok maybe two, functions—tell time and wake me up—and it does it really, really well.

I also have a working 8-track cassette player. It’s a great reminder of how, when technology advances, sometimes the user interaction is an afterthought. With a vinyl record, I could choose which song to listen to based on where I put the needle while with the 8-track it’s really hard to go to a particular song.

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

As a dog owner, I wish I had invented those Chuckit! ball launchers. It solves a real problem—avoiding slobbery dirty hands when throwing the ball for your dog, especially when another dog stole your ball.

What’s been really interesting to me are products or devices that change user behavior. One example is the Wii—making family time in the living room active. Recently I started using a Windows Phone 7 which is a very socially oriented phone. The people tile on the main screen shows photos of your contacts, and they are updated constantly. Well I found myself starting to take pictures of my friends just to have them in the rotation. I hadn’t done that before.

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

I get excited designing those kind of experiences—the ones that change the way people relate and interact to devices and then to each other. It’s part problem solving and part creating experiences that become seamlessly integrated into people’s lives.

I was with my Mom recently and she had just bought one of those high end one-pod coffee makers. Well I watched her struggle for 3 days straight; each day she put in a pod, thought she was doing everything right, and ended up with coffee grounds all over the counter—no joke. I looked at the machine and tried to decipher the blinking lights and little icons and thought wow—they must have done little or no user testing on this. For me, it’s taking a problem space and digging into the details of how to make things work so easily or seamlessly that it’s easy to forget someone had to spend the time designing it.

I also believe that problem solving begets innovation, and innovation begets more problems; which keeps us designers in business!

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

I was a Voice User Interface Designer in the speech recognition industry for years. I finally thought of myself as a designer when I figured out how best to describe what I did. People would ask and I’d say “You know those automated speech recognition systems you get when you call an airline or your bank…” and without fail they would jump in “Oh man I hate those things,” or “Ack! Whenever I hear one I just press zero over and over again,” and I’d reply “Well, I work on making them better.”

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

Pick your battles and know when to compromise: I learned the hard way by some really tough clients and an awesome mentor. I thought I needed to defend my design because well, I’m the designer, but you have to be willing to compromise. Clients often have more of the background or institutional knowledge that you don’t, and you have to know how to work together.

6. What are 5 things all designers should know?

1. Always ask, “Where’s the brief?” Know the problem you are trying to solve.
2. Invest in people. Make time. Build relationships with engineers, PMs, clients, QA, whomever…
3. Keep building your design toolbox. Find inspiration everywhere.
4. Be an active listener. Put yourself in their shoes to understand their motivation.
5. Design in context. Know your users.

Don’t miss Karen’s presentation Designing Talking Devices at Device Design Day,  August 5th in San Francisco.