Cover story

XVIII.6 November + December 2011
Page: 40
Digital Citation

What makes things cool?

Karen Holtzblatt

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When Apple released the iPhone in 2007, it was a game-changing product in ways we had not seen for many years. Consumers were talking about it everywhere. They gathered around the phone to watch the pinch and the swivel; they were awed by the pictures, apps, and games. The technology industry reacted as well. Companies expressed their frustration at not being able to create a game-changer too. Everyone wanted to re-create the iPhone's impact in their own products.

Game-changing products and applications are part of the natural ebb and flow of product design. But something different seemed to be happening with the release of the iPhone: something all-consuming, something related to the overall user experience, something more than previous technology innovations.

But what is that something? What does it mean to design for a transformative experience? What makes things cool? What drives the cool user experience? [1] To guide design teams, and to understand what makes things cool, we launched the Cool Project.

Here we introduce the results of the Cool Project and the key constructs we uncovered as core to the user experience of cool.

back to top  The Cool Project

What is going on with people using cool things? What impacts the experience of cool? How does the cool experience change across the life-cycle as we age? We wanted to identify principles to guide companies in designing cool into their offerings.

We [2] began by going out into the field to understand people's experience with their cool products. We conducted field interviews with nearly 70 individuals between the ages of 15 and 60 across multiple locations in the U.S. Using Contextual Design [3], our well-known user-centered design technique, we gathered and organized the data, producing affinity diagrams, personas of people and devices, and activity boards summarizing findings in key activity areas such as health and family. Then we conducted an online survey with more than 800 people in multiple cities across the U.S.

The analysis of all this data revealed the themes of the cool experience and implications for product design. We organized these themes into the Cool Concepts: the Wheel of Joy and the Triangle of Design. We introduce them below.

back to top  What Makes Things Cool?

The absolute center of cool is joy. Joy is our autonomic response to our encounter with the world. Joy is pulled unknowingly and unwillingly from within. It is the most basic of human emotions [4].

Throughout our research we encountered joy over and over, hidden beneath the experience of cool. The experience of cool is compelling because it is tightly connected to the experience of joy and delight. But how can something as simple and limited as a technical gadget or a piece of software create an experience as profound as joy?

Consider the following reactions:

  • "Look at this, Mom. It's a flashcard app to study for the SATs—they even flip. It makes the work like play!"
  • "My old high school friend just contacted me—I haven't talked to her in years. Facebook is soooo cool. I love it!"
  • "Come see my HDTV. Can you believe the picture? Do you see the green? It's better than real grass on the ball field! This is the coolest!"

Joy doesn't come from one specific feature. It doesn't come from using trendy colors, or adding people that move or jumping graphics. It doesn't result from using a touchscreen or fewer clicks to complete a task. Rather, joy in life happens when products help us fulfill our most core human motivations: Accomplishment, Connection, Identity, and Sensation. We use the Wheel of Joy (Figure 1) to represent these core life motivators, the what of cool.

But joy in life depends on how a product is put together. The Triangle of Design (Figure 2) represents key product design considerations that lead to joy in the use of the product itself.

Taken together, the Wheel of Joy and the Triangle of Design define the aspects of life and experience that designers must focus on to design for cool. Some elements have more impact than others, but overall the more of these elements that a product fulfills, the cooler the product is experienced.

Here we introduce the Cool Concepts. Our research uncovered many examples of each factor, although I can elaborate on only a few in the space of this article.

The Wheel of Joy: Product Impact on Life. Each segment of the Wheel of Joy represents an aspect of life that cool products enhance and so generate joy in life.

Accomplishment. Joy erupts when products empower us to fulfill the many intents of life that, taken together, make up our days. The joy of accomplishment is our recognition that we can now "do our life" better than before.

For more than 20 years designers have focused on making tasks simpler [5]. The very idea of going into the field, as emphasized in Contextual Design, is to better understand a work task within its larger context of relationship, culture, and place. Task was seen as something to enable—and easily accomplishing a previously hasslefull task does contribute to our joy.

But the joy of accomplishment revealed by our cool research challenges that focus. Joy in accomplishment reveals a more primary motive: to keep moving along in the unstoppable momentum of life. Cool tools keep us barreling along, moving from intent to intent, from urge to urge, spontaneously driven by our own desire and timeframe.

Consider the following moments of life: Tracy, 28, a married full-time graduate student, lives in Boston with her new husband, Mike. Last weekend, they went to New York City on a lark.

"What should we do today?" Mike asked. "I know! Let's go to New York! Why not? We have the vehicle; we have the time... let's go!" So we took off with no advance planning whatsoever. Along the way, I used my new T-Mobile MyTouch Google phone to map the route. When we got to New York, I found a great hotel with But they wanted 70 bucks to park a car! So I did a search and found a lot three blocks away for $30. Then we wanted to eat and there it was, right at my fingertips.

This couple is driven by their inner urge to go or see or do or eat. Today, with mobile information in hand, people can move along in their life with hardly any up-front planning, responding to their moment-to-moment desire or situation.

The cool of accomplishment changes the design focus from task to life. Life-centered design supports spontaneity and momentum. Life-centered design asks us to pay attention to the chunks of activities that make up any bigger task and how they can get done in smaller pieces of time. Why? Because people are trying to get all of work, home, and fun done by using every minute in life.

Life-centered design calls for reconceiving activities in terms of the chunks of time and the amount of attention we want to devote to them:

  • Core activities that call for time and attention;
  • Chore activities that we want to get done fast and in the dead time of life;
  • Moments of time when we take a mental break or are waiting—good for checking a quick email or playing a game.

Life-centered design challenges the idea of design for task—it asks us to fit product value into the real-time slots of our lives.

Connection. Connection between people is basic to human existence. Whether it's in the context of family, friendship, community, or one's career, reaching out to transcend our aloneness is as necessary as breathing. Cool tools are helping us connect to people who matter—and that is what makes them cool [6].

The joy of connection is not about the number of friends you have on a social network site; it's not about the usability of collaboration tools; it's not about being able to see each other with video. Central to the cool experience of connection is the way cool tools help make relationships that matter more real and manageable within the unstoppable momentum of life.

The mobile phone, texting, and collaborative little games help us maintain our relationships by "dropping in" on those who matter to us more frequently. Cool tools help us find conversational content—news, shared opinion, funny videos, or photos of a trip—which gives us something to talk about. And cool tools let us find things to do—movies, sports, games, events, and trips. A relationship with nothing to do and nothing to talk about is not a relationship at all.

Within a community context, online communities like provide all this plus a way to contribute to something larger by providing help and expertise to the community. Sites bringing together communities of interest create tangible community where only dispersed people existed before.

Taken together, cool tools reveal the work of relationships and how by simplifying that work, relationships so essential to the feeling of connection can better fit into the unstoppable momentum of life.

Identity. Figuring out who you are and how you will contribute to the world is the basic life task [7]. Children dress up and play make-believe to practice the behaviors of society and their role in it. This quest for self-definition is most intense in adolescence but continues over the lifecycle as people become independent adults, professionals, partners, home owners, parents, grandparents, and retirees.

Just as relationships need conversational content, so too do we need ideas of who we might be. Cool tools bring us a way to see what others our age or stage in life do to become more adult, parent well, or make the transition to grandparents. They help us find examples of behaviors, clothes to wear, values, activities—anything that we can start trying out to see if it feels like a "fit for me." Now we can define what is normal, because Facebook lets us see what others "like me" are doing. We can check with friends and media showing people "like me" to find out if our choices are reasonable. When we feel like we have made a choice that fits our real selves, we feel the joy of a centered self.

Immortality—the quest to mark our unique existence for all time—is also a hidden cool experience. Since Neolithic men recorded their accomplishments in cave paintings that still speak to us today, people have sought to record and share their life story. YouTube is cool not only because it provides a way to share video, collects potential conversational content, and relieves boredom in dead time. YouTube is also cool because everyone can announce their existence and become a movie star. Facebook is cool not only because it creates connection, but also because it is becoming the living cave wall.

Sensation. The joy of pure sensation starts with an infant staring at patterns or a child pouring sand over her body. Visceral experience—being drawn into the pure sensation of life—is both part of our natural interaction with the world and a way to "take a vacation" from everyday living.

The cool of sensation falls into two camps: sensory immersion, creating "time out of time," and moments of pure sensual delight.

Products that offer sensory immersion take us away from the everyday. Music, a really large TV, and the graphics of games deliver transformative cool when done well because they fully and completely absorb us. They become our core leisure activities absorbing us for longer periods of time. They are cool because they take us away from the everyday.

Elements of sensual delight can be built into any product: a compelling color like a lime-green coffeemaker, the visceral sensation of suede on the Droid cover calling to be touched, or the soothing sound of crickets coming from an alarm. Sometimes there is a twist in the sensation that ups the ante when a digital product recapitulates the real: digital photo quality that is "like real," digital flashcards that flip and generate that tiny smile of playfulness. But gratuitous beeps and boops or purposeless games and movement aren't cool—in fact, they tend to repel people. The key for design is making sensation a natural part of the product and experience.

These sensations and natural playfulness, although not the dominant reason something is cool, still draw us in and create a smile. They create a cool moment. When done really well good sensations make work like play without feeling gratuitous. They augment the other cool factors, enhancing the overall coolness of a product.

The Triangle of Design: Joy in Product Use. The core of joy comes from how the factors in the Wheel of Joy impact life. The Triangle of Design makes this joy in life accessible through creating joy in use. The Triangle of Design defines the factors which taken together increase or decrease the overall cool experience; they ultimately enhance or undermine the joy of life that the product is trying to provide.

The cool of the Triangle of Design goes beyond the usual focus on usability—it can't be achieved by counting steps and clicks, and it can't be created by focusing on problems to fix. Joy in use comes from a holistic approach to providing and accessing capabilities that transform life.

Direct into Action. All cool products are cool because users can directly fulfill their core intents—not just a little bit more directly, but in a profoundly different way. Cool tools let people achieve their intent in a way that is most natural without stopping to have to learn, figure out, find, orient, negotiate logistics, or even decide.

The most direct experience returns people to their original interactions with the world. Natural interactions—reach to grab, touch to feel, talk to request and get attention, walk to move, hear to orient, focus to see what is desired—are our innate capabilities. Design for Direct into Action is possible today because technology has matured enough to build much more directly upon these original capacities. Today smartphones feel like an appendage, as immediate as any sense, allowing us to acquire information about the world or take a desired action. From thought to result, it works magically.

Design for "back to origins" affects the interaction paradigm we can now use to access product capability. But Direct into Action is equally about that capability itself. Instant on, one-click to buy, and even getting absolutely everything needed to use a product in the box let us move instantly into action. Bringing all data and function needed into one place, organized so that we don't have to orient or figure out a page is direct because we can see, decide, and do in an instant. Aggregated content that simplifies decision making by eliminating the need to collect and narrow a choice is cool—Pandora provides the music we want without making playlists or even choosing the songs. It takes us directly from desire to result.

Today's technology makes real Direct into Action possible and that in turn makes living within the unstoppable momentum of life also possible. The principles of Direct into Action call for an entirely new way of designing. Just as natural language commands overtook cryptic comments, WYSIWYG enabled direct writing interaction with the page, and drag-and-drop let us manipulate the digital world directly, touch interfaces and small targeted mobile apps let us fulfill our intent in the minute-by-minute context of life.

The Hassle Factor. The Hassle Factor is the evil twin of Direct into Action. Hassle is a natural part of life. Clothes are a hassle compared with nudity. Buttons were a hassle until zippers and then Velcro were introduced. But Velcro can get clogged up and stop working, so Velcro is a hassle too. Every invention removes hassle from what came before it, but every invention also introduces new hassle.

The design challenge of the Hassle Factor is to figure out how to remove tool and life hassle while introducing the least possible amount of new hassle. The Hassle Factor points to the experience of relief, that "ahhhh!" that comes when we remove the natural hassle of life and that installed hassle introduced too often by technology. Auto-connect to the Internet instead of wires and set-up procedures—cool! Instant on instead of walking to the coffee machine while the computer to boots up—cool! Knowing my location instead of having to tell the navigator—cool!

But every piece of information the user has to tell the tool, every option that must be picked, every and any set up, preferences, entry of rules, log-ins, registrations—every act that a tool requires us to take to get to our intent—is a barrier. If a tool introduces too much hassle it will be abandoned—not cool!

The cool of the Hassle Factor includes the physical manifestations of technology. Over and over our users told us, "De-junk me!" Don't give me one more box for my TV, or one more gadget to carry around with me. The cool of the smartphone is that it eliminates junk—the navigator, the book, the calculator, the flashlight... the list goes on and on. With the smartphone I can have what I want in my pocket with so much less junk—so cool!

The Hassle Factor asks us to raise our collective design consciousness to design for the hassle balancing act: How much hassle can we remove and how much have we created anew with our great new tool? But when we get it right, we achieve the "ahhhh!" of relief, and that is cool.

The Delta. The Delta is the context necessary to achieve Direct into Action from the very beginning of product use. The Delta highlights the learning stretch built into a product.

People learn how to operate in the world with their senses and they learn to use tools when they are young. Writing and typing, our acquired capabilities, once integrated, require no more reflection to use than grasping or talking—they become extensions of the mind. Anything that builds naturally upon what is installed in childhood is a simple stretch to use. But if the Delta is too wide, the product won't be experienced as cool no matter what functions it provides.

Computer tools can require a huge conceptual framework and so a huge learning curve. People we talked to simply abandoned use when the learning stretch was too much. Learning is not a goal for most people; they have little time and attention as they navigate the unstoppable momentum of life.

But the Delta is different for each age cohort. Each generation acquires different capabilities, and these installed capabilities reflect how cool people think products are. One elderly Mac user reported the IBM Selectric typewriter as the coolest thing in her life—the Mac was painful. Nor is the Mac easy for hardcore PC users. Each platform requires a complex framework of skill, concept, and habit that those who use it forget because with each release they took a small learning step. Older users starting from scratch can't easily come up the staircase of new technology—they can't start at the top—unless a product is built on their original installed cohort capabilities. Only those interactions installed at youth feel natural to them.

The design challenge of the Delta is to bridge the gap between how the customer interacts with the world now and the technology prowess assumed by your product. Products that go directly into action with little or no new knowledge are cool. Indeed, when products slide into use effortlessly magic happens, and people stop to share their awe. They did nothing to get going—cool!

Creating the "Can't Go Back" Experience. The Wheel of Joy and the Triangle of Design reveal aspects of life and tool use that may have been invisible to people before. By organizing the core factors of the cool experiences into a coherent framework we hope to guide product teams to intentionally design transformative products.

Our survey results suggest that Accomplishment is the most important factor affecting the cool experience, with Connection coming next in line. Identity and simple Sensation seem to operate as enhancers rather than as dominant factors. The power of Direct into Action is unparalleled because now everything we need in life can be accessed in a pocket. Life in a pocket keeps us barreling along in the unstoppable momentum of life—and that is cool! Taken together, the Cool Concepts build on each other: Addressing more cool factors leads to a more intense, cooler experience. But not every product's mission will address all factors—nor should it. Yet within its product mission, any product can enhance its cool experience.

As we start looking at the cool factors as they play out in business products, develop measures, and refine how cool factors interact with each other we will learn more about how the cool experience plays out in people's lives.

So what makes things cool? Life impact—a leap of impact is essential to the cool experience. The Cool Concepts invite designers to take on a new level of consciousness, focusing on core human motives. Whether a product is directed at consumers or businesses, the Cool Concepts can guide product developers to greater innovation. Done well, products create an "I can't go back" experience—users can't imagine going back to what they had before. As one iPod owner said, "What am I going to do, carry around a Discman and CDs?" This "can't go back" experience is the true result of product innovation.

back to top  References

1. For related history, see Pountain, D. and Robins, D. Cool Rules: Anatomy of an Attitude. Reaktion, London, 2000.

2. InContext Design is a design firm founded by myself and Hugh Beyer in 1992. The Cool Project is an advanced development effort conducted by our team.

3. See Beyer, H. and Holtzblatt, K. Contextual Design: Defining Customer-Centered Systems. Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, San Francisco, 1997 and Holtzblatt, K., Wendell, J., and Wood, S. Rapid Contextual Design: A How-to Guide to Key Techniques for User-Centered Design. Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, San Francisco, 2005.

4. Norman, D.A. Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things. Basic Books, New York, 2004.

5. Hackos, J.A.T. and Redish, J. User and Task Analysis for Interface Design. Wiley, New York, 1998.

6. Ito, M. Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2010.

7. Erikson, E.H. Identity, Youth, and Crisis. W.W. Norton, New York, 1968.

back to top  Author

Karen Holtzblatt is the CEO of InContext, an industry-leading design firm. She has pioneered transformative ideas, like the Cool Concepts, throughout her career. Holtzblatt co-developed Contextual Design, the user-centered design process used worldwide, and co-authored Contextual Design: Defining Customer-Centered Systems and Rapid Contextual Design: A How-to Guide to Key Techniques for User-Centered Design. As a member of the CHI Academy, Holtzblatt received CHI's first Lifetime Award for Practice.

back to top  Figures

F1Figure 1. The Wheel of Joy.

F2Figure 2. The Triangle of Design.

back to top  Sidebar: Putting the Cool Concepts into Practice

What happens to design thinking when you start putting the Cool Concepts into practice? They change the way you see possibilities for your products. Some products or services will incorporate some of the factors more than others. For example, clearly the Keurig coffeemaker, which is considered cool by many, may not have a lot of relevance to Identity. So depending on the product some aspects will be more relevant than others.

Here we reprint excerpts from Coolworthy Review [1] of to show how the Accomplishment concept can guide design. is a Web platform dedicated to managing personal finances and was named by several people we talked to as one of the coolest sites they know.

"It's like an accountant that you don't have to pay for, with 24/7 availability. That's cool. It doesn't take a lot to set it up, and now I can manage my money and plan my decisions. It even dialogues with me and makes suggestions about when I can buy a new computer. And of course, I get alerts if I exceed budget. Now I know that by March I'll have the money to buy the computer I want." —Male, 28 years old

* How Did Mint Do on Accomplishment?

It's clear that Mint's primary value is in the area of Accomplishment. Managing money is one of those life chores that demand our time. The bills have to be paid. We worry about whether we have the money for a purchase. We want to plan for a big purchase, and for long-term life goals. All these tasks take time. By pulling information into one place online, Mint makes these life chores easier.

It's worth pausing for a moment to think about that. When any work or task gets fragmented across too many tools, it becomes hard to manage. It becomes complex and stressful (over and above the natural stress associated with finances). Where are my finances? A little bit over here, in my bank account. Over there in my savings account. Here, in my line of credit. There and there and there, in my credit cards. Oh, and also my car loan. How can I get a clear picture of where I stand? How can I plan when all the parts are fragmented across so many different places?

Just putting all the financial information in one place, where I can see it without hassle, and which has the planning tools I need—all by itself, that creates a sense of relief. It's all here, at my fingertips. A tedious life task which I dread just got easier and simpler. Whew. How cool.

One part of Accomplishment is just getting the job done, without hassle. But to be cool, it's important that doing the job fit in with the unstoppable momentum of life. That means being available on the go, fitting into the short, wasted moments of life—waiting for the bus, the doctor, the kids to be done with practice.

Mint makes a start on fitting into life by providing a mobile app. That means Mint is able to be in the places where life happens—so financial chores can be handled in the spaces of life. I see my dream shoes as I pass by the store window, but do I have enough money left in my clothing budget to buy them? Mint can tell me while I'm standing on the street. Or I'm bored waiting for the bus—I can take a few minutes to go over yesterday's spending and make sure my transactions are categorized correctly. But the app is limited—you can categorize transactions, but can't easily find the ones that Mint didn't categorize for you. You can check your budget, but can't check progress against goals.

Could do better? Here are some thoughts on the Accomplishment factor.

Mint has a mobile app, but it could do more to fit with the unstoppable momentum of life—an important aspect of Accomplishment. That means supporting the quick financial tasks that fit into the dead times and momentary breaks of life. Let me adjust a budget—adjust my alerts—check progress towards a goal. And, while I'm on the go and see something I want but that would bust my budget, let me create a goal in the moment and see when I might be able to get it. The Mint app should enable mobile financial decision making in the moment. Real financial responsibility on the go would make Mint highly compelling.

1. The Coolworthy Column is a publication on The analysis consists of a few field interviews with users of the product combined with a heuristic analysis against the Cool Concepts. The full article discusses implications for all the factors. Read it at

back to top  Sidebar: Exercise: An Example of the Cool Concepts in Action

Across the lifecycle, people use cool products and applications to help them stay fit and healthy. Tracking statistics, supporting challenges with encouragement or goal setting, making exercise into a game, or introducing a social element all help people achieve their exercise and health goals.

Jim's experience described here brings many of the Cool Concepts together in his use of Runmeter. It is a good example of an application taking a whole-life perspective, even though the task itself is focused narrowly on the running experience.

Jim is a single 45-year-old engineer who cares a lot about running. Running is a core life activity for Jim.

On Saturday Jim gets ready to go out for his morning run. After lacing up his running shoes, he starts Runmeter on his iPhone as he heads out the door. "I love this app!" He takes one of his favorite routes, listening to music on his iPhone as he runs. At mile one, Runmeter interrupts the music and a voice tells him how far he's gone, how much further he has to go, and how his time on today's run compares with past runs on the same course. "Just getting the feedback in the moment keeps me running, and lets me know I accomplished something!"

Meanwhile, Runmeter has also posted a map of his route to his Facebook page. He runs around a beautiful lake in his neighborhood, and a few of his friends comment on the route later. "I love that in a long race my friends can track my progress through Facebook and leave encouraging comments." During the run, Runmeter reads the comments to him, using text-to-speech.

Jim's friend also uses Runmeter. During his friend's day-long bike ride, Jim tracked him on Facebook, leaving encouraging comments throughout the day. Jim really liked the feeling of being connected to his friends while out on the road.

After his run, Jim stops in at his favorite coffee shop. While he cools down with an iced coffee, he checks his stats for the run. "I can see my pace correlated with elevation in graphs and charts, as well as the map showing the entire route. I like the feedback, but I really like feeling less alone during solitary workouts. It's just so cool!"

Jim fits running into his life but cool tools help Jim achieve his life goal. The iPhone music provides sensory stimulation while he runs; Runmeter gives him the feeling of accomplishment as he logs miles. Posting a map lets others follow and cheer him on, adding a dimension of connection. And checking out his stats gives him something to do in the moments after the run—reliving the experience—or in other dead times in his life. Runmeter the tool is directly and well integrated into the physical running experience itself and avoids the hassle of music and voice colliding by interrupting the music to provide valued information. Taken together, Runmeter is cool because it addresses multiple factors in the Wheel of Joy and the Triangle of Design.

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