Deploying empathy can be your greatest innovation


6, Feb 2020. 10:42am

The next truly great innovations won’t revolve around technology.

They won’t be based on data or analytics.

The next great innovations will advance our ability to empathize with others.

The business world is already rich in data, analytics, and technology. But to get the real benefit of that wealth of information, you need something entirely human—that rare quality called empathy.

The late, great Maya Angelou once said, “…people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’

If you’re like most businesses, you don’t have a strategy to improve customer experience. Fact is, businesses are more focused on acquisition today than on customer retention (44% vs. 16%). And unlike times past, some of today’s companies have enough private equity to act like new-age Ponzi schemes. Investment money in, marketing money out. Remember Theranos, Silicon Valley’s healthcare darling valued at $10B in 2015, which imploded a few years later? They enlisted an Academy Award-winning documentarian to produce their commercials and hired the iconic advertising agency TBWAChiatDay (who produced that Superbowl commercial for Apple in 1984). See what amazing marketing can do? In budgets and interest, marketing and advertising usurp user experience and retention, including staff training to help understand how to make customers feel good—or at least better, because customer experience and emotions are complicated. Marketing, not so much.  

Meanwhile, empathy as-a-service isn’t a new concept. It’s a business philosophy that was pioneered by brands like Disney, Nordstrom’s, and Ritz-Carlton, all brands we’ve had the privilege to work with and learn from.

In essence, it changes the focus from short-term sales to long-term success by constantly improving the customer experience. It may include in-store changes, package design improvements, software tweaks, or something as simple as looking customers in the eye when speaking with them. Collected below are a few examples of companies that are using empathy to improve customer experience from a variety of industries and contexts.

Transparent Package Design Informs and Educates

The other day, I was meeting a client at Starbucks and saw a parent buy a 10-year-old girl a Unicorn Frappuccino (over 400 calories, or 30% of her daily allotment). I felt like swatting it out of her hand.

For the first time since the early 1960s, life expectancy in the United States has declined for the second year in a row. To put it simply, this is a travesty. 40% of premature deaths can be avoided through lifestyle changes. Sad. With increasing health care costs, an aging population, the obesity pandemic, and now the opioid epidemic, food and beverage brands need desperately to implement empathy.

Along with fast food, we also have to think about other trends in modern life: being always connected, under stress, with mounting deadlines, too much desk time and not enough exercise. All are creating the perfect storm for disease. Specifically, heart disease, the leading cause of death in the US.

How do we reverse these trends? Though education. Through corporate responsibility that promotes healthy foods and beverages. Through proliferation of technologies like FitBit, customized for specific health threats. With improved tracking of calories taken in and burnt off, people can know where they stand. Here’s an example of an innovative label concept design that supports this approach. It could be taken a step further to provide a reference for how many steps are needed to burn those calories.

Concept label source.

Software Design That Reduces Friction

When I went to buy my first car, the salesman didn’t start by showing me the engine. He walked me around the car and opened the door for me to take a seat. It’s the design and interior that catches your eye. Same goes for software.

Some technology platform developers we speak with discount the importance of user experience. Their focus is on engineering the platform. Then they plan to “circle back around” to design the end user experience. This is not productive, as the platform itself tends to define how people will interact with it. Though my idea may sound counter-intuitive, they should design the experience first, then build the technology to support it. That will save time and money and generate greater ROI.

Empathy mapping is one way to create improved customer experiences. According to Sarah Gibbons of Nielsen Norman Group, it comes down to four points: what a user says, thinks, does, and feels. Already (and more so in the near future), design and the customer experience will overtake price as a key attribute in making purchasing decisions. That’s why design-led companies generate 32% more revenue (McKinsey).

A few simple tips to start you off: don’t design white text on black backgrounds; make sure your website is responsive; and standardize colors, fonts, buttons, and form elements across the interface. Color-coding helps people know what kind of action or information they’re looking at right away.

Improve Customer Onboarding so You Don’t Piss People Off

After years of competitive weightlifting (and earning a state record), I developed severe osteoarthritis. My days of deadlifting were over. I went to seek help at a local Pilates studio for active therapy. It was my first time at a Pilates class, so I was a bit nervous.

First thing that happens when I walk in is the instructor pushes a tablet in my hand and asks me to sign up. After 10 minutes of pinching and zooming (the software wasn’t responsive—you know who you are) to enter a ton of details that weren’t pertinent, I lost my enthusiasm and was ready to bail.

The first time you meet a customer, don’t make them onboard themselves. Talk to them. Build rapport. If you need their details, get them afterwards, or ask them questions and fill out the form yourself. And, back to the point above, don’t hand them software that increases friction, anxiety, and frustration. That’s the best way to lose a new customer. About that Pilates studio? I haven’t been back.  

Look People in the Eye to Create Relationships

Two universities performed a joint study on the effect eye contact has on retention. A salesperson pitched two soap products while on camera. During the first pitch, the salesperson gazed directly at the camera for 30% of the presentation. In the second presentation, the host did not gaze at the camera. The findings? Viewers could remember significantly more information when the host gazed at the camera.

A little eye contact goes a long way. And at only 30% of the time, which is less than 20 seconds out of every minute, it should be a cinch. If you are working on making a lasting impression, find your customer’s gaze and hold it, because memory, impression, and eye contact are deeply connected. This is why many professionals, like doctors, are investing in hands-free technology to take notes (like Amazon’s Alexa). It gives them more face time with their patients and less time writing or typing behind a screen. 

Educated Use of Color Improves Awareness

Years ago, Heinz developed a green-colored ketchup that diverged from their standard red ketchup. It generated the highest sales in history. Why? Green was congruent (people do eat green tomatoes), and the new ketchup was launched with the movie Shrek (making it fun and desirable for kids, who love decorating their foods with colors). With their newfound success, they launched other colors. Purple and blue. Which failed miserably because these colors do not normally occur in food and are not appealing in an eating context. Point being, we taste with our eyes long before we taste with our mouths, and different colors mean different things to different parts of the brain.

For example, we are born with certain instincts for colors like red, which signify fear or danger—fire or blood. An experiment with placebo pills tested the theory with red and blue pills. Both were placebos (sugar pills), yet people surveyed said the red pill woke them up and the blue pill put them to sleep. Choose colors carefully for logos, identities, websites, and other design assets, because their meaning is largely sub-conscious and rooted in evolutionary experience. 

Empathy, at its core, is about understanding. Understanding human behavior and how you can improve the experience for people to serve them better through reduced friction, improved convenience, or memorable experiences.

Great design is simple. But the art of creating simple design is complex, because every pixel must be intentional.