I like to explore design's reach into unexpected places. Today, I'd like to focus on design in politics… specifically, how, by creating emotional connection, the Web site my.barackobama.com (commonly known as MyBO), empowered a grassroots campaign that put a young Senator from Illinois in the Oval Office.
I don't know if Chris Hughes, the Facebook Boy Wonder behind MyBO, considers himself a designer, but I certainly do. In fact, I believe he's an extraordinary designer. No matter which side of the aisle you sit on, or what color your state, it's impossible not to recognize the monumental impact the Internet played in the 2008 campaign.
The theme of MyBO came from Obama himself, "I'm asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington… I'm asking you to believe in yours." Obama asked people to believe. Chris Hughes gave them the tools to effect that change.
Hughes is known as "the Empath." That's fitting. Empathy is an essential—perhaps the essential—trait in successful designers. As I've said, "It's not how the design or experience makes you feel, it's how it makes you feel about yourself." Designers have to be able to step outside themselves and into the hearts and minds of the end-users. A designer must be able to accurately imagine how a design will make a variety of users feel. This allows us to understand what features will elicit which feelings.
When designers determine the features going into a product, they're not really designing features, they're designing benefits. What's more, they're designing to create the emotions these benefits evoke. In the case of MyBO, the design was all about empowerment and hope. Empowerment to effect change; hope for a better world.
The real brilliance of MyBO.com is that the point of the online site was to facilitate real world activity. Take the Neighbor-to-Neighbor campaigns that connected members to undecided voters near them. But the "connection" Hughes worked so hard to design into the system wasn't merely based on geography. Hughes sought the deeper connection, the emotional connection of commonality. By having volunteers call undecided voters with similar backgrounds and interests, Hughes empowered people to connect with the people they called. And once you truly connect with someone, it's much easier for them to really hear what you have to say.
So what can we learn from Hughes and the design of MyBO? We can learn the value of creating designs that empower and connect. Don't let the scope and impact of MyBO intimidate you. The empowerment doesn't have to be as world-changing as the Obama campaign. It can be as simple as a kitchen tool that empowers a parent to make a meal that connects their family around the dinner table. The real benefit to companies is how this empowerment connects consumers to brands. When you successfully create this connection, you've set yourself up to benefit from the grassroots campaign known as viral demand. When people love your products, they're happy to do your PR work for you.
Read more of Ravi Sawhney's Design Reach blog
Ravi Sawhney is the founder and CEO of RKS, a global leader in strategy, innovation, and design.
Since founding RKS nearly 30 years ago, Sawhney has earned a variety of top honors in the design industry, and assembled a client list that includes HP, Intel, LG, Medtronic, Seiko, Sprint, and Zyliss, among many others. In the process, RKS has helped generate more than 150 patents on behalf of their clients.
In 2004 Sawhney was named chairperson of the Industrial Design Excellence Award program, where he created the IDSA/BusinessWeek Catalyst award for products that generate measurable business results. Most recently, he was named Executive Director of Catalyst to direct its evolution into a program to develop case studies illustrating design's power to effect positive change.
Sawhney also invented the popular Psycho-Aesthetics® design strategy, which Harvard adopted as a Business School Case Study. He is a regularly featured lecturer at Harvard Business School, USC's Marshall School of Business, and UCLA's Anderson School of Business, where he teaches this business-driven design tool.
In addition to RKS, Sawhney has played an integral part in the founding of several other businesses, including Intrigo, an innovative computer accessory company; On2 Better Health, a health products company; and RKS Guitars, best known for its reinvention of the electric guitar.