iPhone Apps and the Making of the 99 Cent Hero



A couple of weeks ago, the billionth iPhone app was downloaded from the App Store. Not bad for only nine months. How are iPhone apps related to heroes? I believe that a key to truly successful design is creating products that make users feel like heroes. The iPhone apps do this day in day out. Have you ever seen an iPhone user, giddy and eager to share the new app they’ve downloaded? They’re delighted to whip out their iPhone and use an app to split a tab, calculate a tip, or check traffic to find a route that will get your group to an important meeting on time. This kind of excitement, pride, and need to share is predictable and repeatable, especially when you learn to look at the consumer’s journey through the lens of the Hero’s Journey.

The Hero’s Journey, described so well by Joseph Campbell, is a classic story-telling narrative used in stories ranging from Homer’s Odyssey to Star Wars. It can also be used to gain a deeper understanding of how consumers purchase, adopt and bond with products. If you observe someone go through the purchase process, you’ll often find they’re initially attracted, yet skeptical. Will the design live up to their expectations? Like a reluctant storybook hero, unsure of answering the Call to Adventure, consumers approach purchases (and even free downloads) with caution. Will it be worth their time, money, or even the space in their iPhone’s memory?

The power of understanding how the Hero’s Journey can be used in design comes after the point of purchase at The Moment of Truth–when they actually get to use it. If the design lives up to or, better yet, exceeds their expectations, the consumer feels like a hero for having braved the marketplace and returned home with a trophy. Whether it’s the Flashlight app that helps guide the way in a blackout, Shazam that keeps them from racking their brain to name that tune, or the Bubble Wrap game that keeps a four-year-old occupied in a check-out line, iPhone users feel empowered by the endless apps available to download from the App Store. And when they feel empowered, they want to share the spoils of their “victory” with everyone they know.

So the next time you approach a design problem, take a moment and think… how can I make this design so engaging and compelling that people simply have to share it? When you’ve done this, you just haven’t sold one product. When you successfully let the Hero’s Journey be your guide, each sale, each heroic evangelist you create, will generate many more sales and build brand loyalty. It will turn your company into something far more than a company that creates products or services. It will be a company that creates empowerment. When you move people in this way, you bond them to your brand. And that bond? It’s priceless.

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.


About the author

As the founder and CEO of RKS Design, Ravi Sawhney has spent more than thirty years at the forefront of product and technology innovation, and has grown his industrial design consultancy into a global leader in the fields of strategy, innovation and design. While leading RKS, Sawhney has helped generate more than 150 patents and over 90 design awards on behalf of his diverse list of international clients, and his work has been featured on the cover of Business Week’s best product design issue.