This article and the forthcoming in the series will explain what makes a product lovable and how to consistently create such products for brand building to win over any competition in the market.
Right from waking up to the time we go back to sleep we continuously use some product or the other. Even during sleep, we use products like the bed, pillows, fans, alarm clocks, etc. But we love some of these and hate a few. We willingly pay a premium price for the products we love. We take good care of them and go back to the same manufacturer for replacement. Over the years, manufacturers of those lovable products develop strong brands. Brands that most people trust.
There is quite a varied choice when it comes to the loved products. Some people may love their musical instruments, some their bike, and some their mobile phone. And one person can love several products, some of which the person may not even have.
People often make many personal sacrifices to acquire these loved products. Costly goods like cars, bikes, and watches fall in that category. When we plan to develop a product, we should try to make it lovable. Lovable products create their own market and help to create a strong brand.
Let me explain what is a lovable product with a few examples from my personal use. The first product that I would describe is my pen. I received it as a gift from my father. It is a fountain pen made by a reputed company. It enables smooth writing and holds sufficient ink so that I never have to worry about the ink running out. Its grip is comfortable. It also looks nice with a silver cap on a black body and a gold-plated clip.
I used to carry it in my pocket more as a fashion accessory. I have used it since my student days and wrote all my major examinations with it. Now getting ink for the pen is rather difficult, so I have replaced it with a roller pen of the same brand.
The second loved product I have is my old calculator. This one is a small scientific calculator. I do not need it now. There are software solutions on my phone and my computer, but I still keep it as a memento.
I have used it throughout my student period and a good portion of my work life. The battery of that calculator lasts more than a year of constant use. It had taken a fair amount of abuse in terms of fall and water damage but has survived all those with some minor dents and scratches. Its size is small enough to carry in a pocket.
I can go on with the list of more products that I love but let us pause to understand what makes these products lovable. The common thread between these products is frequent usage, their robustness, and good user experience. Together they create habit-forming products—the products in which we find comfort and cannot live without.
The habit-forming curve in Fig. 1 tells us that we get habituated to the products that we frequently use. Until the frequency of use crosses a threshold limit, we will not get attached to that product. Similarly, we need to find some utility of the product. Unless we have some perceived utility for it, we do not get attached to the product.
The combined factor of perceived utility and frequency of use gives rise to habit formation. In our daily use we have multiple alternatives. We have to think and choose between these alternatives. All these choices require certain mental activity. When we convert these mental efforts into a habit we do not have to think.
Habits make it possible for us to deal with complexities in life without wasting our mental energy in performing the task. It is like learning to ride a bicycle or drive a car. As long as we have not mastered the controls, we need to think. After practice, these activities become a habit and one can do these activities without much effort.
It is the same with our selection of products. For a successful product, we need to increase its frequency of use as well as increase its perceived utility.
Products have two different kinds of utility. The first addresses some specific problems that we have. According to Nir Eyal, author of the bestseller ‘Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products,’ such utilities are like painkillers. We do not use these painkillers unless we have pain. They have a high perceived utility but fall short in the frequency of use.
The other kind of products he calls vitamins. We use these products regularly to ward off some notional problems. A pharmacist will tell you that vitamins sell more than painkillers. Coming back to my examples of calculators and pens, I used to carry them in my pocket or my bag more as security. Now the calculator has been replaced by a mobile phone. A mobile phone has more utility and takes about the same amount of space.
There are many more things in my house that have occasional use, but I do not carry them around all the time as I do my phone and the pen. The reason I carry my phone and pen is that I can afford to. The property that makes the product to be used in a certain way is called affordance. This is the property that makes us use the product in intended or unintended ways.
For instance, the designer of the pen provided a clip for us to attach it to something—be it a shirt pocket or a loop inside my bag. Now, I also use the clip to secure some loose paper on my desk. This is an affordance that probably the designer had not planned. Sometimes I may stretch the unplanned affordance and clip a whole bunch of papers.
A well-designed product will either prevent such unplanned use or accommodate it. For instance, the clip of a cheap pen will bend and become loose after I clip a thick bunch of papers. In my pen, the clip is designed with variable rigidity that will not allow me to insert more than a couple of sheets, and the clip will withstand only that much abuse.
A well-designed product will have a good amount of affordance for its intended use. For instance, the pen is lightweight so I can carry it or write with it easily. It has a nice grip that is comfortable to hold for hours. It writes smoothly. The cap is easy to open but at the same time remains secure once closed. The clip, which is visible from my pocket, is aesthetically designed and acts as a fashion accessory.
The ability to use a product in different ways increases its utility and makes us use them frequently. Which in turn makes them more adorable. Now, the product does not become useful by the mere presence of the affordance. The user of the product must know about its presence and get a hint on how to use the affordance.
The feature that communicates affordance to the user is called a signifier. For instance, in my pen, there is a ring between the body and the cap. This is a signifier that separates two similar-looking objects so that I know which two parts to hold and pull to open the cap. Affordances are the physical features that enable us to use the product; signifiers are the communication features of the affordances that tell us about the presence of the feature and give hint on how to use the affordances.
Proper design of signifiers differentiates great products from the rest. Improper signifiers, on the other hand, create difficulty in using the product and reduce its value. For instance, when we see a door recessed inside a frame, the signifier invites us to push it open. If the door opens outside, or we need to pull it sideways, then that needs to have a certain signifier telling us that. A bar on the door signifies pushing and a handle invites us to pull it. A pedal gives a clear indication of pressing it with the foot.
It is not uncommon to find improper use of signifiers. When you see a door with a bar your instinct will be to push it. But if you have to pull it to open you get into a behavioural conflict. Faced with a conflict of the signifiers, our first reaction will be confusion. If we have to use such features frequently then instead of loving we shall develop a hatred for the product.
We are all too familiar with the elaborate ornamentation around the entrances of a building. The ornamentations help to separate the gate from the fence, or the door from the wall. While doors and gates are the affordances, ornamentation that is around the door or gate is the signifier. Just like the ornamentation and design of the doors and gates give us an indication of the ambiance and quality of what is inside the house, the signifiers in the product give us an indication of the product.
Aesthetics and quality of interface play a very important role to make a product successful. Before we discuss product design let us first discuss the concept of a product. A product is meant to achieve certain results. The product can be a physical thing or it can be a software. Television, computer, mobile phone, fridge, and cars are examples of physical products. Operating systems, computer games, and mobile applications are examples of software products.
We use a product to achieve something. This results in the utility of the product. We value the product because of the utility that it has. Now, there are certain costs that we have to incur to use the product. These costs are in the form of money, energy, time, and attention that we have to spend to get our desired result. We like the product that gives more utility using less cost.
A lovable product has to provide more utility at a lesser cost, which gives us the perceived utility. It also needs to get used frequently to be in the habit-forming zone. Such a combination needs careful planning and careful trade-offs between various alternatives. Swiss knife or combination tools are one of the best examples of clever design to increase the frequency of use.
In my desk’s drawer, I have a supply of scissors, a knife, a magnifying glass, and other such tit-bit tools. There is also a Swiss knife that has all the functions. It is no surprise that most of the time I will grab the Swiss knife for anything. As it is frequently used, it is kept in the most accessible part of my drawer. I can grab the Swiss knife even without looking at it. Any of the other tools will require a search inside my drawer.
If you look at a catalogue of Swiss knives, you will find there are plenty of different varieties of the knife. Within the knife the blades and implements provided in different knives are carefully planned. For instance, the one I have is meant for an urban office and has a reading glass, a few screwdrivers, a knife, a can opener, and other things.
I have another version of the knife, which is meant for camping. That one comes with a tiny saw, a file, and a hook, which are missing from the office version. Each of these has the appropriate set of tools for its place of use. Good product design needs to carefully evaluate what features to provide in the product to make it most useful.
Let us take designing of windmill charge controller system as an example to understand the concept. I have selected this example on purpose. First of all, the device is rather simple, which will allow us to concentrate on the design process rather than getting involved with electronic circuits. The second reason for selecting the charge controller is that it will be functioning somewhere in obscurity and forgotten. We shall try to change that and explore ways to make the charge controller a lovable item.
Wind turbines are mechanical systems. If we simply disconnect the battery, once it is fully charged, the turbine will start rotating rapidly in absence of any load. Such rapid rotation may lead to turbine failure. When the turbine produces more power than required, the extra power needs to be diverted to auxiliary equipment like some pump or decorative lighting, etc. The charge controller does this work.
The windmill charge controller has multiple roles to play. It prevents overcharging of the battery, ensures that charge does not flow back from the battery to the turbine, and it also needs to protect the turbine from rotating too rapidly. Windmills generate alternating current, which is rectified before use.
Charge controller sits in between the rectifier and battery. A dummy load is attached to the charge controller (see Fig. 2). In case the turbine starts rotating too rapidly, the charge controller activates a braking switch to slow down the rotation.
In this basic configuration, customers do not interact with the charge controller directly. Such an item will be treated as an appendage of the windmill and treated as a commodity item. Such a product will have multiple competitors. Each of them will try to compete on cost and reliability.
Unless you produce the controllers in huge quantity it is very difficult to compete on these two parameters alone. There is no way you, as a designer, can make such a product stand out from the others in competition.
The charge controller performs some useful functions but it falls short on the frequency of use. Our innovation to make the charge controller a lovable product has to be directed towards increasing the frequency of use.
The basic function of charging a battery or diverting the power to a dummy load does not have any user interaction. We need to think of adding additional functions to the charge controller to do that. If we consider that the essential function of a charge controller is to protect the battery then adding battery status monitoring is something that we can provide easily.
Other parameters that the charge controller monitors is the power generated and power consumed. Keeping track of these parameters can add value to the homeowner. If the user knows the power generation and consumption patterns then he or she can plan the load distribution more intelligently. These parameters can also tell us about the battery condition and warn us of any deterioration of battery capacity.
It is easy to see that a smart charge controller that gives us all this information will bring a product from obscurity to the centre of attention. We have various alternatives for making the charge controller share this information. This information can be stored internally and analysed using an onboard computer. Another alternative can be storing this information in a cloud server where the analysis can be done. Third option may be to store the information only and transfer the data into a portable memory card, which in turn can be analysed on a desktop or laptop computer.
Each of these options will have different design and cost implications. Product performance and technical features like power requirements, voltage, and current are important as the controller must operate in conjunction with readily available products being sold in the market.
While deciding on the final product specifications we need to look at the market competition, the features being offered by other manufacturers as well as their prices. After all, a lovable product will also need to be affordable. For developing the product we need to consider many other factors like the environment it will operate in, various governmental and other regulations, besides making provisions for the future requirements that may arise.
When we start to define a product, we shall have many options and shall decide on certain options. At the product definition stage, these decisions do not cost much effort or money but these have far-reaching consequences.
A study done on cost commitment at various stages of design found that about 63% of product cost gets frozen by the end of conceptual design. By the time a product design is made more than 80% of the product cost is committed. Improvements and innovation done in the subsequent stages are only limited to the remaining 20% of the cost.
Hence, a lot of care should be taken in deciding the correct product specifications and the correct design options. These analyses lay the foundation for the rest of the product development process. In our next article, we shall discuss the process of arriving at the product specification systematically.
Soumyanath Chatterjee is former TVS Motors Chair Professor at Industrial and Systems Engineering Department, IIT Kharagpur. His expertise are in Product Development and Supply Chain Management
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