Engage your customers with empathetic design


27, Jul 2020. 17:03pm

You don’t have to be an empath to develop evocative experiences and memorable marketing. While “empaths” are equipped with affective empathy skills (sharing the feelings of others), cognitive empathy (understanding the feelings of others) can be developed and honed. I should know. Born and bred in NY, empathy wasn’t a sought-after life skill. We were all tough skinned. Years later, I’ve transformed one of my largest weaknesses into a strength. Keep reading to learn why.

Empathy is quintessential in product and service design

A landmark text on customer research and empathy written over two decades ago, Spark Innovation Through Empathic Design, brought light to a dark area of innovation. The authors say that empathic design can help solve a variety of dilemmas—specifically, identifying needs customers don’t know they have. Empathetic design, they say, is about watching customers use the product or service.

But the crux of this technique is to observe customers in their own environment. Like observing shopping habits in a grocery store, or interviewing customers in their homes. Sometimes what people say they buy is not what they actually buy. Often referred to as survey bias, interviewees will skew their responses based on what they think is socially acceptable. “Does your family drink much soda?” might get a response like, “No, not really.” Then you look in the pantry and find cases of sugary beverages in the corner.

Many more resources, courses, and frameworks on empathetic design have been published since “Spark.” u.lab, part of MIT, is an intensive course on edx.org that helps cultivate curiosity, compassion and courage in the face of prejudice, anger and fear. IDEO, another leader in empathetic design and human-centered design, hosts courses on developing and sustaining these methodologies.

The case for empathetic design

“The techniques of empathic design—gathering, analyzing, and applying information gleaned from observation in the field—are familiar to top engineering and design companies, and to a few forward-thinking manufacturers, but they are not common practice. Nor are they taught in marketing courses, being more akin to anthropology than marketing science.”

Certainly, more companies use empathetic design today than in past decades, although, considering its low cost and low risk, it’s a surprise more companies haven’t integrated the practice into their design and engineering workflow. The insights they could discover have truly transformative powers to align the product, service, or brand in completely new directions.

An engagement we undertook with a regional non-profit who serves those with mental and physical challenges, sought our help to improve customer flow at one of their “training” businesses. They develop real businesses that serve the public while helping their clients learn critical life skills. At the time, their café was losing money. They thought the issue was sales. We thought there was a deeper concern. So, we sent one of our team in undercover (as a waitress), to gather information from customers and staff. In one week, we learned there were deep-rooted challenges with staff interaction, food preparation, pricing, and interdepartmental communication. Increasing sales alone would not have slowed the hemorrhaging of money. I’d like to say this engagement was a homerun, but only some of the easier recommendations were followed. The ones that involved introspection and culture transformation were not. It’s easy to hire consultants to recommend new strategies. It’s much harder to achieve consensus among various stakeholders on said strategies and drive them forward.    

Why some customer research fails…

“Market research is generally unhelpful when a company has developed a new technological capability that is not tied to a familiar consumer paradigm.”

For example, a client of ours developed a software program that simplifies the complicated process of uniform procurement for health care workers. When interviewing prospects, we learned that they had no complaints. “We already have a program in place,” they’d say. But when we asked them to demonstrate their program, we saw all the unnecessary steps they were taking. When we showed them our client’s program, they were surprised. “I didn’t know there was a solution that could reduce all the work I was doing.” They assumed there wasn’t a better way. That’s what happens to new ideas.

In his most recent book, Owning Game-Changing Subcategories, David Aaker says, “A high level of dissatisfaction can result in a game-changing subcategory that will have a lot of fuel behind it.” He reiterates the rise of Uber (ugh, yellow cabs in NYC are the worst), Airbnb (all the hotel rooms are sold out?), and Warby Parker (choosing glasses is hard).                       

Empathetic design is particularly good at uncovering ever-elusive, yet vital tacit knowledge: things that people know without knowing they know them. It uncovers these truths better than any other technique. Sometimes the news is good. Sometimes it’s bad. But it’s always helpful. 

What triggers customers to buy your product or service?

In addition to discovering key insights to help market and sell your products or services, empathetic design can also help to identify the reasons customers buy your product.

“When the makers of Cheerios went out in the field, they found that breakfast wasn’t necessarily the primary purpose for which certain households were using the cereal. Parents of small children, they found, were more interested in the fact that the pieces could be bagged, carried, and doled out one by one as a tidy snack anytime, anywhere, to occupy restless tots.”

With a SaaS platform we developed to help our clients develop website pages quickly, after watching them at work we learned that they were using our platform to develop robust websites. What we meant to be used as a simple landing page developer turned into a full-on website builder. We wouldn’t have learned that, and been able to pivot our platform, without that deep, use case understanding.

The empathetic design process

The authors identified five steps in empathetic design. In my humble opinion, there exists another step, “Rank Ideas”. You have the potential of developing hundreds of ideas. How can you most efficiently winnow them down to the most important? Force ranking becomes a valuable step in prioritization.

  1. Observation – define who should be observed, who should do the observing, and what the observer should be watching. Create a brief observation protocol guide that summarizes procedures for your team to follow.
  2. Data Capture – while most observations are made presumptively, and open-ended questions may be asked, data captured is generally in the form of notes taken by the observer(s). Notes should be made in real time or immediately after the observation, while the memory is fresh.
  3. Reflection and Analysis – review the collected data and start a dialog among your team. Observers should organize their notes and take time to synthesize the mounds of data they collected. This can also involve discussing insights with colleagues or analogous stakeholders to clarify or trigger different perspectives.
  4. Solution Brainstorm – defer judgment, build on ideas, one conversation at a time, stay focused. Once the data is organized and clarified, open up findings to your entire team. Use a technique from Travis Neilson: “10x” your ideas: focus on each idea and try to come up with 10 more related ideas. Use the “yes, and…” statement to take one idea, then extrapolate. For example, during an observational review process with a healthcare client, we observed that their group therapy room walls were painted deep red. Not good. The first idea was, paint the walls pastel colors. Yes, and dim the lights so it’s not so bright, yes and, place chairs in a circle, yes and, play soothing music, yes, and scent the room with lavender, etc.
  5. Rank Ideas – ask everyone in your group to rank each idea relative to the others on a simple 1-5 (low to high) scale. Set criteria for ranking each idea such as, ability to execute, alignment with vision, impact in the next year, etc. Rank each item separately for each criterion, then combine scores to determine final ranking per idea.
  6. Develop Prototypes – clarify chosen concept, stimulate reaction. After winnowing ideas down to the most important, the next step is to build out simulations either physically or in concept. If the idea isn’t physical, role playing can be introduced to litmus test the concept.

Next steps

Empathetic design sounds good, right? But how do you implement this framework within your team so it doesn’t become a good concept that never gets executed? You can start by putting your team through classes at IDEO and MITX. Share the articles and books cited above, and develop your processes and procedures. Or you can hire EMPATH to provide the frameworks and training in a two-day workshop. We’ve distilled our learnings from having followed this process for hundreds of clients and can give you a jump start.