Respond to consumer emotions

D. Murali | Updated on September 28, 2011


A leading audio products company, JBL, had a problem. After more than a decade as the leader in the portable power speaker market it created with the original EON line of portable public address (PA) speakers, JBL found its competition encroaching on the EON’s market share, as Deepa Prahalad and Ravi Sawhney narrate, in ‘Predictable Magic: Unleash the power of design strategy to transform your business’ (Pearson). “There were many ‘me too’ products nipping at JBL’s heels. The category was becoming commoditised. JBL knew it needed to take pre-emptive measures to retain market leadership. What it needed was a new generation of EON that raised the bar in all categories.”

The company was good at engineering and manufacturing its own components, with a competitive advantage in woofers, compression drives, tweeters, and so on. But the marketing challenge was that with all these things inside the box, the customer was not seeing them at all.

“You can hear them but you don’t see them. That was the challenge for us with design… to bring that same level of quality to the outside,” reads an insider quote, captured in the book. For, a key finding of JBL’s internal research was that consumers relied heavily on visual cues to judge the quality of the speakers; and that, to command the required price at retail, the speakers and other products had to communicate the value of the superior technology inside with a clear and compelling design language.

From medical to lifestyle device

Another story in the book is about MiniMed, which created in the mid-1990s an insulin pump, aimed at improving patients’ lives by giving them more timely treatment while increasing their freedom. “The device had FDA approval, and its effectiveness was not in question… Yet, after a few years of initial rapid growth, adoption and compliance tapered off. All the while, incidence of diabetes kept growing.”

To better understand the user experience and thus explore the reasons for low adoption, a designer team came on board. The designers wore the pump (administering saline) for several days to get at a visceral understanding of what a ‘Day in the Life’ of a real user was like, recount the authors. “The verdict was that the pump was reliable and fairly easy to use. But every time the designers used it in public, people would stop and stare. Using the pump in restaurants where it is medically necessary to compensate for food intake was emotionally deflating.” More importantly, this feeling of self-consciousness was potent enough to make people take drastic risks with their health by skipping insulin doses, the designers found.

To reconnect with the consumer by eliminating the social stigma of wearing the pump, the company worked at designing the medical device with the looks of a lifestyle product. How so? Not by making the device invisible, but by drawing inspiration from pagers which were common at the time and changing the association from medical device to a cutting-edge mobile communication device. As a result, “Instead of furtive glances, it served to foster dialogue about managing diabetes.”

EMPOWER approach

Breakthrough design does not happen in a vacuum, the authors remind. It is not something that can be tacked on at the end of the product development process, they add. “The complexity of new product introductions, diversity of consumers, and global competition mean that far more people in every organisation are invested in the design development process. To truly innovate, executives, marketers, engineers, and designers must work in concert from the start.”

Since aligning strategy with consumer experience is one of the toughest organisational challenges, what is needed is the sustained effort from people with very different ways of looking at the world, the authors emphasise. “Designers work by instinct. Engineers rely on numbers. Executive and marketing decision-makers require a rational basis for their design decisions. Simply bringing together a group of bright individuals and asking them to be open-minded rarely bridges these gaps.”

The book describes the methodology to enable effective collaboration, and thus attend to the first of the seven stages – viz. enable your stakeholders, map the future, personify your consumer, own the opportunity, work the design process, engage emotionally, and reward your consumer – or the E in EMPOWER.

Towards the end of the book, again, you find a discussion on designing through collaboration. Examples given include Cole Haan shoes employing Nike Air technology in their walking shoes; Disney working with Apple to transform its stores; and discounters like Walmart embracing organic produce, sustainable store design and trimming their offerings to provide a more pleasant shopping experience.

Connect through a story

A ready takeaway in the ‘conclusion’ chapter is the direction to create a connection with the story at each stage, because the story has a role in every step of the innovation process. “For executive teams, a clear understanding of why the problem they are working on matters serves as inspiration. Consumers today, faced with an abundance of choices, are buying into a narrative as much as they are purchasing actual products, services, and experiences.” Watch out, some of the best-intentioned and designed concepts failed simply because they were not clearly understood, as Prahalad and Sawhney highlight.

The authors draw attention to the point that endless amount of demographic data, financial projections, and anecdotal information rarely add up to great market gyan; and that, often, design failures can be traced to an inability to make sense of contradictory information. The antidote is to enable communication, create consensus, and ultimately build confidence and alignment among stakeholders. The confident thesis of the authors is that anticipating and responding to consumer emotions, rather than parsing demographics and focusing on market research, has proven to be the most reliable indicator of design success.

To the doubting many who still wonder if emotional connections are the real drivers of growth and prosperity, the answer comes from a quote of the poet Maya Angelou, as follows: “People forget what you said, they forget what you did, but they never forget how you made them feel.” Underlining, therefore, that the emotional impact companies have on consumers is perhaps their most lasting legacy, and the largest element of their brand equity, the authors call for it to be at the forefront of everything the company does.

A book that comes as an appeal to reason, especially for those who search in vain for consumer insights only among dreary research numbers and complex marketing models.

Published on September 28, 2011

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