Is This Article Cool?

Karen Holtzblatt, author of What Makes Things Cool?, distills the essence of why we love the gadgets we love (iPhones, anyone?) so ardently.

Karen Holtzblatt claims to know what makes things cool. She even has a book out bearing the extremely literal title: What Makes Things Cool? But I am suspicious of anyone who claims to understand what makes things cool and sells his or her know-how to gigantic corporations (in Holtzblatt’s case: LG, Walmart, Nokia, John Deere, and others). In particular, I disagreed with something Holtzblatt wrote in her book: "We all know cool products when we see them." Cool, I think, is learned. We are social creatures, after all, and we look to a select few to help us develop our tastes—which is why we call such people tastemakers.

Yet Holtzblatt seems to be saying that coolness can literally be designed into a product. I see coolness as fleeting, something scarce. She says there is a connection between learning and joy and the perception of cool. I think cool is external. We like certain things and find them cool because they tell the world something about us and how we'd like to be perceived. You could play it cool, in other words, but could you really be cool? Maybe, if you were The Fonz. The rest of us are just faking it.

She and I fundamentally disagree about the nature of cool, and disagreements make for good conversation, so I called her recently to talk about the ideas in her book.

FAST COMPANY: What is it that you actually do, and how did you come to do that?



KAREN HOLTZBLATT: I’ll give you my usual pitch. When I came into the high-tech industry over 20 years ago, my training was as a psychologist, in cognitive psychology, and this was right when technology started being used by real human beings—people who were not engineers.

How was being a psychologist useful then?

There was the issue of nobody really wanting to understand how the technology was put together. And back in those days, there were hardly any usability engineers, let alone UX [user experience] or UI [user interface] designers. I had a much broader sort of applied background and had already basically been doing usability testing in my lab work and out in the field. People were like, "What do you mean you’ll go out and talk to people about what they’re doing and how they do it?" There’s some paper someplace where I’m called a mystic and heretic.

Why was that?

The typical way then, and still, in some ways, was to ask people what they want. But people don’t actually know what they want. People don’t know technology or themselves or their lives. And besides, we aren’t interested in truth, we’re interested in making things people love. Out of this came my first book, which is used by universities and companies all over the world, on user-centered design processes. I’m known, now, as this sort of voice of understanding customers in the field. I would consider myself...well, people call me a guru.

Okay. This cool thing: I don’t think we see eye to eye here. Your notion is that you can build something cool.

That’s right. If you think about the idea that’s—what’s front end design?

[Long pause]

I don’t know.

You come up with an idea, iterate, validate, and the user experience part is baked into that process. When we talk about the user experience, we’re not talking about Lady Gaga cool. The world cool has a variety of meanings and assumptions. So what I wanted to know when I started researching cool was what was going on such that people were exclaiming, could not stop talking about their technology, that it itself had become cool.

How did you research this?

I went out into the field. I asked people, what were the dimensions that defined this experience, that the word cool was a geiger counter for.

That’s a complicated way to put it!

Well, we didn’t say exactly that. We started with 60 people and asked them to bring together their stuff, what they thought was cool that had some technology component. When we talk about the results of this study, we go, "Look, it’s cool because people brought this together and they said so." We went into their homes, each of the things—sometimes it was a radio or a vacuum cleaner; it was always their mobile device, their DVR, their large screen TV; every so often it was their car. The technology devices were always at the top of the list.

But you asked them—you said there had to be a technology component.

Sure. But it also could have been a fridge or a microwave. We then said, "Alright, show me what it does in your life during the structure of your day, and we looked at what was really going on and looked for themes. When we were done, there were seven core concepts that account for the driving issues around the user experience. The overarching experience is one of joy being ripped out of your guts.

I don’t think I own any piece of technology that makes me feel this way.

Well, what’s interesting about joy is you can’t cognitively create joy. You can’t think your way into joy. But effectively your joy is attached to something that moved you. It’s a little metaphysical—it moved you in your soul. Talking about their cool tools, people were going bananas. They talk about their phone the same way people talk about a puppy.

I find that kind of sad.

Well, if I had told designers to design for joy, it would be just as hopeless as saying "design for cool." But the fact of the matter is that human beings—never forget I’m a developmental psychologist—are born with core concepts. Small children can feel joy. And it happens because of certain lived experiences. Touching, for example, is one of our most central human motives, which we are supporting so much more. We are touching things that were never touched before with technology. The way that these core concepts work, the cool concepts, the more of them you touch, the cooler your thing is.

What are the cool concepts?

The cool concepts are proprietary. Each concept has a set of 10 phrases. I don’t want you to write the phrase, but you can write the concept.

Can we maybe use an example? What’s a piece of really cool technology today?

Look, for all really transformative technology that will rock the base, something has to be so transformative that it punches a hole in human experience, and it goes "whoa," you know? The first product that probably did this for a lot of people was the spreadsheet.

(Literal sound of me doing a spit-take, only with air, so it’s just pffffffffffffffffff)

No really! It allows you to do "what ifs," on a large scale for the first time. It made the first Apple computer. If there wasn’t a spreadsheet, that is the application that made the box. In point of fact, it in one step was a sweeping change.

So where does Google Glass fall?

Pretend it’s a prototype and this is a corporate experiment. Effectively, we don’t know yet whether people want something in their eyeball.

I don’t think Google Glass is very cool.

Let’s use Google Glass as an example, and I’ll tell you the seven cool concepts. My daughter works for Google, by the way. So the first and the most important is the experience of accomplishments in life, the difference between doing a task efficiently and, you know—if you watch a little baby zip their zipper for the first time, and they break out into a joyous smile; when you try doing something and you do it and you go, "yes!" And people hate being bored: at the bus stop, in the doctors office, paying their bills. You could read your book in the line now. We are now designing for time—tiny bits of time at work or at home.

My problem is: I don’t see the problem with being bored. Also, by the way, I think a lot of us are not paying bills or reading, but playing Candy Crush.

Well, the joy, the cool, is getting your overwhelming life done. And the requirement for Google Glass is, does it help me get my life done?

I thought, at this point, the requirement is more like: We need people to be Okay with this weird Internet face-camera so that they don’t punch other people wearing it in the face.

That’s part of the problem, certainly, but if Glass was more useful, it would be more accepted. Also, the always-on aspect is a problem. People break up the day and self-interrupt. In the old days, they’d get up, go to the bathroom, talk to someone. People don’t want to be doing chores during their core time, they want to be doing it in dead time. We’ve always had these responsibilities, we’ve just never been able to handle them on the go. What I basically think is that dads have been sticking their nose in the paper and hiding out in the bathroom for a very long time. Now it’s not really different.

So technology is escapist, and that’s always been the allure.

Technology is revealing what is core about humans. Escapism, accomplishment. But connection too: Cool tools are allowing distributed families and friendship groups to stay connected. Three of the core principles have to do with how often you touch, the conversational content, the collaboration and planning. What is Google Glass doing for connection? Is it really in the way of interacting with someone? The way laptops got in the way of relationships, with Google Glass you also don’t have the ability to share what you’re looking at.

Also, there really is no way to look cool wearing it, let’s be honest.

That’s it too. If a product helps you do the things that make you a professional, it doesn’t just cool points for accomplishment, but for identity. So we gather data for relationships, your life, the nature of yourself. What makes you feel whole, complete, and joyous. Google Glass, really? Is that me? Is that who I want to be? Look at the first Sony Walkman: Black was for professionals, yellow was for working-class. The only way glasses are going to work...is if it helps you and says something about you in your profession.

I buy that, because it seems like now the only people who are routinely using glass are surgeons or technicians in the workplace. Certainly not so much at bars while socializing. So what’s the last of these cool concepts.



The last one is sensation. We’re born it. Kids are just sensual. We snuggle, we laugh in the wind. There’s joy just in sense that we love the beauty of the aesthetics of things. People now expect a modern, industrial design. If they don’t have it, they don’t like you. But this is the least important attribute, because if it doesn’t actually do anything, it doesn’t matter.

[Image: Flickr user Boudewijn Berends]

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