When industrial designer Ravi Sawhney saw a recent TV news story about the 100th anniversary of the Coke bottle (the iconic, hourglass bottle was first manufactured in 1916), he thought about the great “hero’s journey” the Coca Cola Company has enjoyed because of a single product.

While the term is used in the book and film industries to describe the adventure a character takes that ends when they achieve a great deed for their community, Sawhney uses it to describe a component of great product design.  “For Coca Cola, the heroes are customers who love drinking Coke so much that they decide to share their love of the product with friends and family,” said Sawhney. The CEO of RKS Design cites Apple Computers as the source of another hero’s journey evident in the news recently when customers lined up at stores everywhere to buy the iPhone 7.

Both Coca Cola and Apple have achieved enormous success in their respective fields, in part, by producing products that have made an emotional connection with millions of customers and generated heroic evangelism as a result. The hero’s journey of enthusiastic customers is a key component of P/A, a product design methodology Sawhney created which is now part of the 2016 core curriculum at Savannah College of Art and Design and CSU Long Beach.  P/A is also used at Harvard University as a business case study and Sawhney has lectured on the emotional connection between brands and consumers to MBA students at USC, UCLA, Stanford, and INSEAD, a graduate business school with campuses in France, Singapore, and Abu Dhabi.

“Studying the trigger points that make customers evangelists is one of the core principals of Psycho-Aesthetics,” said Sawhney. “P/A also includes in-depth market research and visualization, mapping consumer segments, assessing existing competitive offerings, and creating potential customer personas.”  The seven distinct stages of P/A include Research, Synthesis, Key Attractors, the Hero’s journey, Design, Execution, and the Moment of Truth. The goal of all seven stages is to turn deep consumer insight into product designs that trigger positive memories in the customer and move them along a journey of discovery until their positive memories translate to brand loyalty. 

Dr Bob Deutsch, who holds doctorates in Cognitive Neuroscience and Cultural Anthropology, believes P/A helps designers focus on the most important factor in creating new products - understanding consumer need and emotion. “In Psycho-Aesthetics, Ravi Sawhney puts people back into the design process - people, not as consumers, but people as emotional and symbolic narrative makers,” said Deutsch. “The end result: People will benefit from a product that has been ‘touched’ by a designer utilising the core principals of P/A.”

Working with business strategist Deepa Prahalad, Sawhney published a book about P/A entitled Predictable Magic. The book includes case studies from some of the world’s top companies, including Sprint, Medtronic, Amana, and Hyundai. It reviews how these companies used Psycho-Aesthetical analysis to go beyond the utilitarian to create products that connected powerfully with their respective demographics.

Sawhney's epiphany about the importance of consumer emotion in product design occurred in 1979 while working at Xerox PARC to develop the first touch-screen interface years before computers entered the mainstream. Working with a team of Cognitive and Social Scientists, Sawhney noticed that research subjects were at first afraid to touch the screen, believing incorrectly that they might put themselves in physical danger by doing so.  Subjects recalled childhood memories of their parents admonishing them about sitting too close to or touching the screens of their home TVs. It was a lesson that sparked Sawhney’s lifelong fascination with the psychology of design.

Within RKS, designers utilised the principles of P/A to create memorable products including Teddy Ruxpin, an animated children’s toy awarded the 2006 Animated Interactive Plush Toy of the Year by Creative Child Magazine. They also designed FloWater, an environmentally friendly alternative to bottled water, and they reinvented the electric guitar with RKS Guitars. With its neck-through-body design, customisable features and uniquely engineered sonics, the RKS Guitar made the cover of Business Weeks’ best product design issue. Achieving one of the principals of P/A, it made guitar players feel better about themselves when they played it compared with traditional electric guitars.

According to Sawhney, some of the most successful products on the market today, including Uber, owe their success, in part, to the principals of P/A. Uber’s core user experience is to get a taxi easily at any time.  The product created to provide this service – the app – includes a countdown, which displays exactly when a customer’s Uber driver will arrive and a map showing icons of all the Uber drivers in the customer’s neighborhood. These visuals expand the reality of the customer experience, making the customer feel like they’re the star of the service because multiple drivers, as demonstrated by multiple vehicle icons on the app’s screen, appear to compete for the passenger’s business.  Instinctively, this makes the customer feel like the app’s equivalent of a queen bee, the star of the show as a hive of vehicles buzz around it, hoping to be the one vehicle selected to fulfill the customer’s need - a ride.

While these features are not necessary for Uber to carry out its business model, they have become essential in defining the transportation network’s brand and creating an emotional connection between the company and its millions of customers worldwide. Every time they launch the app, Uber customers “feel better about themselves,” a fundamental principal of P/A.

Sawney believes the goal of every designer should be to create products that improve the quality of people's lives and provide them levels of self-esteem that can only be created through insights into the "self." As he says in his book Predictable Magic and has said countless times to design and MBA students and companies launching new products: “It’s not how you feel about the design or experience, it’s how it makes you feel about yourself.”


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