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Designing From the First-Person Perspective

In professional industrial design, designs aren't really for the designers. They aren't even for the clients. They're for the end-users. I believe we get the best results when we "design from the first-person perspective" and really immerse ourselves in the user experience. When we understand the touch points the user identifies with, the needs that drive them, and the benefits they seek, we can create designs people crave. The more we're able to focus on the user, the more we're able to create deep emotional connections.

One instance where we can especially benefit from a "first-person perspective" approach is when the job at hand is a redesign. It's easy to want to completely re envision the design. It's only human to want to leave your mark. And designing from a blank slate can be liberating. But rather than a clean slate, why not start from a thorough understanding of the user experience with the original design? What do they love? What do they hate?

An often overlooked key of design is understanding what not to change. We might be able to come up with a completely new and innovative way to design a scalpel, but if it changes the way surgeons have to work, the design will likely fall flat. Surgeons have years, often decades, involved in developing and perfecting their technique. If you fundamentally change their grip or how they handle the scalpel, you may well alienate them. But when we start from understanding the user experience so completely that we can see the design through their eyes, we can find ways to better facilitate their needs. By uncovering what not to change, we can suddenly see what can be changed.

Shimano STI break

I believe this approach led Shimano to one of the most significant developments in cycling technology in the last quarter century. Before introduction of Shimano's STI integrated brake/shift levers for road bikes, brake levers were on the handlebars and shifters were on the down tube, between the cyclist's knees. Less-experienced riders would often suffer in the wrong gear rather than make an awkward reach for a shifter. When Shimano set about re-designing, they did so with a great understanding of the cycling experience. Shifting is important. Braking is essential. When you're flying down a mountain at 45 mph, your brake levers need to be right where your hands are. This could not be changed. By integrating the shifters into the brake levers Shimano fundamentally changed cycling for the better. With STI integrated levers, shifting is intuitive, effortless, and instinctive. Shimano bonded cyclists to their brand by making cycling far more enjoyable.

When we keep the focus on the user and creating a better user experience, we can create emotional connections that propel brands.

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.