We had a wonderful time at our SIG on Understanding Cool this year at CHI 2010. Here at InContext we are taking up the challenge of understanding the experience of “cool” in the context of people’s lives and across people’s life cycle. Our advanced research is looking at people from high school through 60 to understand how they experience technology within their lives and to understand their experience of “cool”.

This work is part of my overall work on practical innovation which I started to share in my Lifetime Award talk. Expect to see more about practical innovation and “cool” in upcoming writing, services, and books. I’ll keep you posted.

As part of this inquiry we wanted to engage the CHI community. We did it in our SIG on understanding cool – and we got over 70 people to participate. This was our submission:

Design practitioners know that part of their job is to create products and services with usability in mind.  Making products and services learnable, efficient and pleasant to use are certainly goals, but every designer dreams of creating something more—something so great that people crave it, long for it, must have it.  Marketers call it “a must have”, “compelling”, or “insanely great”.  But most of the rest of us just call it Cool.

Over the past several decades, Cool has evolved into a marketing imperative.  And so Cool has become like an overarching requirement for many designs, especially in the consumer product space.  But Cool is hard to pin down—there’s no accepted way to define it, measure it, or design for it. Like glamour, it is an ineffable yet powerful quality that depends on a host of subtle factors. This SIG created a forum to go beyond “you know Cool when you see it.” We collected and collated a number of concrete examples of Cool and identified patterns and design principles underlying Cool.

In the SIG, we wanted to hear the voices of the CHI community as users. We weren’t looking for their professional opinions about what was cool—we wanted to understand their personal experience of cool.

We broke into groups, each addressing one of 3 domains:

  • Sensation and Aesthetics
  • Fit to the Life Tasks
  • The Device itself.

Each group broke into pairs and did mini interviews of each other, capturing key experiences on Post-its. Then the group as a whole discussed their findings and identified a set of key learnings from their own data. We had wonderful participation and got some validations of our field data findings and some new ideas.

Here is a summary of the findings:

Sensation and AestheticsCool is:

  • Immersive—It transforms you to another place and time; adrenaline rush;
  • Example: surround sound
  • Empowering—It makes you do things better than before and feel in control;
  • Example: personalizing and customizing a phone.
  • Delightful/Surprising—You discover new ways of doing things; color makes you feel alive and “modern”
  • Example: watch YouTube on a plane—“Oh wow, I can do it now!”

Design Principles

  • New isn’t always better—combine familiar things in a new way

Fit to life tasksCool:

  • Saves of time and effort—it makes something that was complex, multi-stepped, or boring faster and easier and closer to a single step.
  • Example: Pandora gives you one place to find artists
  • Example: The Miele Vacuum fits many needs: powerful, easy, allergy reduction, less effort, works on all surfaces.
  • Example: The iPhone liberates you from worry about how to get around and where to go in a new city—everything is in your hand.
  • Example: The electric toothbrush—you stand there and it does the work
  • Provides a no going back experience–Once you have the product you can’t go back to less; you appreciate a company that does it well; it builds brand loyalty
  • Adapts to your life–It fits to your behavior and needs
  • Example: Pandora internet radio, I can get my music based on mood;  my child can get their music and as the child grows they can get different music. One tool to deliver on all of it.
  • Enhances your life—Adds a new dimension to daily life.
  • Example: Tivo adds program choice
  • Example: Internet TV incorporates community into watching
  • Enhances your relationships—Helps you connect to others or express your identity

Design Principles

  • Money does not equal quality. Can be cheap and good or expensive and not great.
  • Deliver on the core value prop—Be clear about the top 2-3 things you will deliver on.
  • Time is precious—the product needs to be efficient and quick
  • Enhance life, don’t mimic it. The digital version must be better than life
  • Expand your users’ understanding
  • Add richness or a twist to what people already do
  • Empower people to tell stories

The Device Itself – Cool technology:

  • Is invisible—it does what is needed without human effort
  • Is engaging—It pulls you in, turning activities into play, or by inviting you to explore; the interface itself engages.
  • Is effortless—It works even if you are lazy.
  • Example: On the internet you don’t have to directly participate in anything to get information;  just post and things happen magically
  • Reinvents the familiar—makes something technical feel like the real thing
  • Example: iPad feels like a real book so you feel like you are in the future
  • Fits the hand—It fits you physically; it’s comfortable in your hand or in a physical space

Design Principles

    • Make work feel like play
    • Make something familiar more fun, delightful, or effortless