Empathic Innovation

We -- humans -- are pretty terrible interview subjects. We want to seem agreeable and meet the expectations of the interviewer; we struggle to identify solutions that don’t yet exist or understand the underlying causes of friction we experience.

Our opinions are limited by our own experiences and our routines mask any workarounds we’ve created or inconveniences we’ve learned to just deal with.

We’re so used to our current conditions that we don’t feel the need to create new ones because most of the time, we’re not aware there’s an issue or a better way.1

A Better Way

For decades, companies have subscribed to the adage of “getting close to the customer” as the means for bringing commercially successful products to market1 yet are often left wondering where they went wrong along the way. Think: Google Glass, Facebook Home, New Coke. Products that seemed to make sense, that were natural progressions of our adoption of technology (or taste), that initially tested well in focus groups, but ultimately failed to meet a real customer need.

“Getting close,” “getting out of the building,” and/or “listening to the voice of the customer” isn’t enough. It’s sharing in genuine conversation, observing behavior, gaining perspective from people within the context of their lives.

Defined as the ability to be aware of, understanding of, and sensitive to another’s thoughts and feelings without having had the same experience,2 empathic design enables our team to balance being “innovative” with crafting products and services that meet the real needs of real people.

Seeing Clearly

When we work empathically, we increase our ability to take in information,2 to understand contexts, situations and the relationship between our person and their environment. We become design and technology experts with both outside perspective and intimate understanding. We’re able to unbiasedly explore the lives of our customers while bringing forth the knowledge of what is technologically possible.

For example, back in 1915 when a young industrial designer, David Sarnoff, suggested radio technology be used for broadcasting news, music and baseball games, the modern radio was born. No one had asked for broadcasting before because no one knew it was feasible.2

This is the power of empathic innovation, core to our purpose here at WINTR.

Looking Forward

There are challenges to this approach, of course. Limited budgets, the inability to gain feedback and/or insights from customers, added pressure from the competition, and the common misconception that we, the product creators, are the customer.3

Gaining empathy doesn’t have to be a years-long exercise or a cost-prohibitive study. With an interconnected system of products slowly reaching mainstream status, we’ll soon have dozens -- hundreds -- of data points to pair with conversation and observation, establishing understanding of our audiences more effectively and efficiently than ever.

We can leverage the principles of empathic innovation by allowing our customers to lead expert teams to water; helping us understand their lives, their underlying intentions, and their points of friction. This process enables us to introduce products and services that fit seamlessly into customer’s lives, that just make sense and, if done well, set a new standard for their future expectations.

Interested in applying this methodology to your next project?
Drop us a line at business@wintr.us.

  1. HBR: Spark Innovation Through Empathic Design
  2. IDEO.org: Empathy on the Edge
  3. Line/Shape/Space: Leading with Empathy
Image credit: Flickr / Rosenfeld Media

Filed under: Perspective