Empathy-Driven Innovation

Three things came together to make me think of this post:

  1. I regularly get feedback from my research interviews that people really enjoy them. That’s interesting, because I’m a lousy interviewer. After the last round, we got some feedback from our contact at the firm who said that he had received thank-you emails for setting up the interviews. My colleague was a bit taken aback by this, and said to me “but we didn’t say anything”. True, I said, but we listened to them.

    And it occured to me how infrequent that is in a lot of workplaces. It’s sad, really. I was reflecting on this on the walk in to my office this morning, and decided that in a lot of businesses, having genuine empathy could be a source of competitive advantage. This is built on scarcity, since genuine empathy is rare. Something to think about I guess…

  2. Then when I got to my office, I ran across several excellent articles tweeted by Elizabeth Sosnow (they were so good that I’ve almost gotten over her saying that she didn’t see why hockey was exciting). One of them was a post called Empathy is a Presentation Skill by Sims Wyeth. Among other things, Wyeth says this:

    Remember, empathy is not the same as sympathy. Sympathy implies that you feel the same as the other person. Empathy only means that you understand how they think and feel.

    By using your powers of empathy, you are more able to get and hold their attention by making your ideas more relevant to their frame of experience.

    So, more evidence that empathy is important.

  3. Finally, those two things got me thinking about Roberto Verganti’s controversial post called User-Centered Innovation is Not Sustainable. Verganti argues:

    It’s time to move beyond user-centered innovation paradigms that have brought us into this unsustainable economy. Are executives and innovators ready to take the lead in establishing a new design-driven process? Are they willing to stop observing the use of existing products and instead propose new scenarios and solutions that are meaningful for people, good for the environment, and profitable for businesses?

    Many people interested in customer-centred innovation have reacted strongly against this post, as Verganti discounts the value of all customer feedback. Maybe empathy can get us out of this conflict?

Verganti’s two examples of non-user-centred innovation are the Toyota Prius and the innovator Ezio Manzini, founder of the Sustainable Everyday Project. The Prius and Manzini’s various initiatives are described as visionary, and they certainly are. But the Prius didn’t evolve in a vacuum. It’s true that while it was in development, the overall market trend was running towards gigantic SUVs with ever-dwindling fuel economy. And yet, at the same time there were a significant number of people that desperately wanted a more fuel-efficient car. Toyota clearly designed the Prius with them in mind. The Prius is user-centred, but not majority-centred.

Another classic example of non-user-centred design is Apple’s decision to cut the 3.5″ floppy drive from the iMac (or their current decision to drop Flash from the iPad). This was done without extensive user consultation – after all, who in a focus group would say ‘yes, I think it would be great if you dropped a feature’? But the decision was made based on an excellent understanding of what users were doing – at the time they were switching over to USB drives in great numbers. It’s not exactly rocket science to decide that users might prefer USB drives with a 50 mb capacity to a floppy disk with 1.44 mbs. So this decision was also driven by an understanding of customers.

My view of Verganti’s approach is that he’s overselling vision. Even in his book, his examples of design-driven innovation (which are great) all include a deep understanding of what customers are trying to get done. I think that what the examples really show are the dangers of letting the majority of customers drive innovation. That just gets you the ‘faster horses‘ solution.

I think that Verganti’s examples show innovation from leaders with vision, and a deep understanding of customer objectives. When you combine this with empathy, you are able to figure out which of the customers at the fringe are the ones that will lead to the next mainstream. Design-driven innovation can’t just be based on intuition alone. It has to be anchored in empathetic understanding of the people that will respond to your proposals.

The key to good design-driven innovation is vision combined with empathy.

(Matt Perez has written a good response to this post)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

43 thoughts on “Empathy-Driven Innovation

  1. Hello Tim.

    if I have read the Verganti article correctly, I would say that he didn´t reject customer driven innovation in general, but in particular, when it comes to the question how to enable a particular new innovation subject/dimension, like sustainability, to the whole innovation process, used to set new goals. Then a second, a vision-centered process will be needed as an addition to the user centered process.

  2. Hi Andreas – thanks for stopping by and thanks for the comment! I think that is a reasonable interpretation of Verganti’s post – although he does speak against being customer-centred pretty strongly in his book and in other posts. Overall, though, I’m very sympathetic to his approach. His book is one of my favourite recent innovation books.

  3. I was about to go to bed when I saw your post and it inspired me to write a post on this topic (http://j.mp/9n68UH).

    I think you nailed it. You put your finger on what was bothering me about this post and offered a very elegant solution by pointing to empathy as the missing element.

    As I said in my post, I understand that maybe Verganti was exaggerating to make a point. But the problem is that he’s a pretty influential guy and people who are not inclined to “bother” with mere users will take this as an excuse to “follow the vision.”

    I remember the bad-ole-days when users were not at all considered in technology product development of any sort. User-centered design was a necessary improvement to the state-of-the-art. If we’ve gone too far with it, then let’s ease back, but not throw the baby out with the proverbial bath water.

    Empathy-driven innovation can balance user-centered with design driven and keep all the stakeholders in the equation.

    Thank you.

  4. That’s a really nice post Matt! I think that your friend is correct in saying that Verganti is exaggerating to make a point – I do the same on a couple of topics. But I also agree that the danger here is to go too far the other way. I’ve seen plenty of firms that are convinced that they are ‘visionary’ when in fact they’re just stubborn and out of touch. Yet another tricky balance to try to maintain when we’re innovating!

  5. Hi Tim, Matt,

    I think the core sentence/question in Verganti´s post is: “But one thing is certain: User-centered innovation has helped conduct us into an unsustainable world. The reason is sustainability is not embedded in the anthropology of our existing culture, society, and economy.”
    Sustainability as a quality, wasn´t in the customers mind before. Q: So where did it come from? Verganti´s answer is: From visioners/excecs, or am I wrong?

    After that the, “How to balance customer or design/vision driven innovation processes”, will appear just as second question.

  6. That could be what he’s saying Andreas, but I think that point would be even more arguable. I think that the sustainability movement has to be considered to be a bottom-up effort, to which some firms (with vision) have responded. My read of the article is that he is saying that customer-centred must be oriented around the majority of customers – who are not interested in sustainability. But I just don’t think there’s any support for the idea that sustainability originated with firms/execs with vision.

  7. Hi Tim,

    I think it´s not originated, but enabled by the firm/excecs. First it´s clearly a bottom up process, cause the ideas have to find their ways to the excecs. Then the excecs have to form a vision out of these ideas shared byjust a minority of users, then they had to top-down the vision to a majority of customers later in a give time frame, when e.g sustainablity becomes of more value for selling and so on. So you´ll need both a top down and bottom up process and doing it this way, it becomes clear, you have to overthink a paradigm which completely relies on a bottom-up processes. The point Verganti wants to stress, IMHO, is that understanding a majority and their groupthinking alone will not be enough for beeing successfull over space and time. According to Verganti the question then will appear: “Are executives and innovators ready to take the lead in establishing a new design-driven process?”,

  8. I just re-read Verganti’s article and the thing that jumped at me this time was the inconsistencies. The Prius and and the Sustainable Project are actually counter-examples of what he’s advocating.

    Very confusing. That’s why people are reading different things into it.

    BTW, Tim, when is your book “Empathy-Driven Innovation–Striking a Balance” going to be published? :)

  9. It’s not his cleanest piece of writing, that’s for sure! I still love his book…

    As for my book, I’m thinking about one, but I’m not sure that will be it! :-)

  10. I can’t believe you have problems with my stance on hockey…;)

    I enjoyed this post, especially your point about fringe customers leading to the mainstream. My B2B clients have sometimes enjoyed significant marketing success by going down the smaller “rabbit holes.” But others have steadily resisted that approach.

    I think your take on empathy is an interesting way to restart the dialogue with those folks. Marketing — and innovation — require more than a thoughtful process.

  11. Glad to hear that the post makes sense Elizabeth! Thanks for helping to trigger it.

    The hockey thing was fairly serious, but I’ve recovered pretty well now… 😀

  12. There is not a single voice that doesn’t want to be heard from- and equitably represented in- the decision (or to also equitably benefit from the result). The challenge is to enable that equality in our collaboration approach. Our current social platforms typically encourage a comment-publish model (and even a I speak here I am ‘unwittingly’ participating in just that). We allow for the empathy (comments) and collect artifacts that may build sympathy (complaints) and then somehow believe that any ‘majority’ collective voice will ‘uncover’ a sustainable solution. Until we take a “Collaboration On Purpose” approach, we will not be pleased with the process or enjoy mutual benefits from the results. But there’s a paradox standing squarely in our way http://unettednations.wordpress.com/2010/01/27/a-pair-of-docs/

  13. That’s an interesting post George. I see what you’re saying about platforms, but I also think that empathy is pretty platform-independent, which is part of what makes it so rare…

  14. Tim, I agree.
    Empathy is a human capacity. Sympathy builds partisanship; empathy encourages dialogue; only objectivity will support collaboration and create consensus. But initiatives (and the innovation we intend from them) can only occur after a consensus is reached. Otherwise, any team could only “head off in different directions”.

    I merely suggest that empathy can (must?) be encouraged and enabled and managed by the platform (framework in which we interact) to enable those with differences of opinion to eventually come to a mutually-beneficial consensus. Without that outcome (decision) we are left in an endless conversation. Few ‘platforms’ currently support us in that convergence or use our conclusion as the basis for our next iteration.

  15. In my opinion, Verganti’s approach is of high value, however, he tends to be misunderstood – on the other hand, exaggerating to make the point isn’t the easiest way to win supporters for one’s idea, of course. But obviously, it’s well in line with his approach, to not address the ‘majority’ first 😉

    I would like to point out some issues, which seem to be quite important to me in this discussion:

    – I fully agree with you that Verganti doesn’t entirely exclude customers from his ‘vision-centered’ approach. As you’ve emphasized, this approach does require a deep and empathic customer understanding – however, this is fueled by stepping back from ‘standard users’ and their context. They aim at taking a broader view on how people might value offerings in a changing environment. Translating this knowledge into novel offerings, ‘vision-centered’ innovators usually address a minority of ‘early adopters’ at the beginning.
    – Assuming an innovation continuum, ranging from incremental towards radical change, it makes sense to me that the approach to innovation / change shifts along this continuum – including the way of understanding and involving (targeted) customers. A primarily direct involvement of current users (e.g. focus groups) will likely lead to different innovation activities / outcomes than a more indirect and broader approach.
    – While talking about ‘user-centricity’, I think we need to be careful about what we consider as “subject of research”. We have to distinguish between actual needs (or ‘jobs to be done’ in the ODI terminology) and solutions to meet these needs. The more users are being asked about solutions, the more incremental the solution will look like. In fact, the understanding of the customer has to be focussed on their requirements. It’s up to the innovating company to come up with an appropriate solution. In this sense, an innovative solution is a kind of ‘proposal’ to the customer/market that is required to be ultimately valued by those. The more radical this proposal is, the more challenging it will be for customers to “build the bridge” as it differs from what they already know and are used to. I’d like to conclude with a quote from Verganti’s book that has become buried in my head: “That (solution) was outside the spectrum of possibilities of what people know and did. But it was not outside what they could dream of and love, if only someone could propose it to them.” I think, this kind of “proposing” in fact requires a great empathy and customer understanding.

    Verganti assumes that the majority of customers doesn’t have an attitude of “sustainability” – therefore suggesting to propose “sustainable visions” to the minority. However, I don’t share the conclusion either, that sustainability originates from “vision-centric” firms / execs. I think it rather requires a major change in the people’s mindset in order to widely value “sustainable” offerings.

    Looking forward to your comment.


  16. Thanks for that Ralph! You know it’s not polite to write comments that are better than the post though, don’t you? :-)

    I think that all of your points are correct. To me, Verganti’s approach is very complementary to the Christensen-style disruptive innovation idea. Both emphasise finding a niche to serve and building from there, and I think it’s a very good approach. The vision and empathy both play their part then in finding the correct niche – one that will eventually grow.

    I also think that your subject of research idea is dead-on. This reminds me of the ideas from Lester & Piore in Innovation: The Missing Dimension – where they emphasise the need for both analysis and intuition. Verganti is definitely stressing the intuition end of the spectrum. I think the mistake is in overselling his idea by essentially saying that this is the only way to innovate.

    It’s a tough choice to make though – because the impulse to only analyse is so strong. Your solutions to meet needs framework is the engineering approach to innovation – very analysis-based. That’s the way that nearly everyone thinks. So I understand why Verganti and also Lester & Piore both really stress the other end of the spectrum – that’s the one being ignored. Scott Berkun essentially did the same thing in his ‘stop saying innovation’ post – we have a similar problem with ideation versus execution. I think the main good thing about the Verganti post is that he has spurred a great deal of productive discussion.

  17. Great conversation everyone,

    What I think is important is not moving away from user centric innovation, rather it is the process of identifying lead users, understanding the fundamental market trends and working with selected users to develop solutions that fit the future environment. I suppose that it takes a vision of the future to guide the process from the start.

    The challenge is mustering the leadership required to do the above in the face of decent among customer subgroups that are resistant to change and cant see global trends. This is where you “stop caring about the user” but this is a temporary condition. This is what Steve Jobs is doing now with the Ipad.

    Maybe it’s more an issue of leadership than design.

  18. Thanks for stopping by Zebediah. Personally, I’m always suspicious of terms like ‘vision’, which is probably my biggest point of difference with Verganti. So think that breaking down ‘vision’ as you do here is a pretty useful way to look at things.

  19. Tim,

    I haven’t had time to absorb the entire stream of this discussion, but I would like to say thanks for including my thoughts on empathy in your post, thanks to Elizabeth Sosnow for retweeting it, and then I would like to direct you to a discussion about the powerful role that trust plays in innovation.

    Please go to http://trustedadvisor.com/trustmatters/735/Innovation-The-Critical-Link-to-Trust

    to read what Charlie Green and others have to say about this important issue.

    I hope we can stay in touch.

    All best,


  20. Tim,
    Great post and I agree with your statement that “vision-centric” or “design-driven” innovation can’t be just based on intuition alone – and with your’s and Ralph’s view about the need for a ‘deep and empathic’ understanding of customers.

    I do want to make a little digression to talk a bit about analytics. Recently, I have seen many statements & some tweets (even by some ‘influencial’ folks) degrading analytics and saying it is overrated. The reasons they gave are – most reports are at an aggregate level, analytics does not help improve experience, it is meaningless to customers etc. This is sad as it is evident that none of them have done any customer analytics in real life. I have been around customer analytics for over a decade and can tell you that
    analytics is one of the foundational cornerstones for all customer related aspects – from experience to innovation to retention and what not. Studying customer behavior and creating customer models gives wonderful insights into how you can make your customers happy. Retention & attrition studies can help you proactively treat customers that
    otherwise would have left you. Cross-channel analytics can help you understand what the next level should be for your product/service strategy and planning, multi-variate tests can provide you with information on what design formats are best suited for certain customer personas (esp. on the web) — and there are numerous other benefits to solid customer analytics. And lastly, in this day and age of information overload – proper use of analytics is what will create actionable insights for the firms to follow.

    Now back to innovation – sorry, had to say that piece on analytics :-). It is interesting to me that we are now having these numerous discussions on user-centric, design-centric, vision-centric etc. innovations. When I taught Business Strategy as an academic, my focus was on the various models, frameworks, and best-practices with a naive notion that following a certain “process” would make a firm innovative. And then I became a practitioner working on various aspects from customer loyalty to long-term strategy and the reality of the situation hit me. Organizations are complex systems – and therefore the cause and effect are not linear. A large cause need not result in a large effect; similarly a minimal cause can result in a huge effect. At the end of the day, the key is survival – and those firms that survive are those firms who can adapt to the environment intelligently.

    Where I am going with this is that I interpret Verganti’s POV to mean that don’t have user-centric innovation as the de facto innovation policy in your organization. You should definitely ping your customers to understand their need-gaps and also for recommendations they have on improving the product/service (the beginning of the cause). However, on top of that you have to layer in the economic outlook today and long-term, emerging technologies, environmental conditions including competitors of today and tomorrow, demographic shifts, regulatory trends, lifestyle changes etc. and then craft an innovation strategy (that will lead to an effect) that will incorporate SOME of the user-feedback with a healthy dose of foresight. This innovation strategy will have an incremental component as well as a component that goes beyond the current business boundaries and which may end up creating new competitive spaces for the organization. Btw, I used the word foresight instead of vision as to me vision is just a dream – foresight on the other hand is based on deep insights into various trends and solid intuition & judgment on where the industry will be 5 or 10 years from now.

    Bottom-line, while I completely agree that customer empathy & understanding is critically important, it is equally important that the organization also understands the macro environmental & contextual trends and builds the structure and processes to adapt itself in possible new spaces. Earlier on I said that organizations are complex systems; successful organizations by extension are complex adaptive systems that have the capacity to change and even morph itself in order to survive.


  21. Hi Sims – thanks for stopping by, & thanks for the link. It looks like there are some good resources on that blog.

  22. Thanks for the insightful comment Ned! I don’t have much to say in response because I think you’re pretty much right all the way through.

    I’m with you on the value of analytics. In most of my pre-academia jobs I ended up being the quant guy in my firms, and I definitely agree that there is substantial value in knowing about the kinds of things that you can get at with analytics. I’ve been doing some thinking in this area and will probably write a post about it later this week.

    I also think that your summary of Verganti’s POV at the end is probably correct.

    I also think about organisations as complex adaptive systems. One question, when you’re talking about the capacity to change, are you thinking that this change is primarily directed? I think that it can be partially directed, but that a large part of successful adaptation is related to generating sufficient variety that some of your initiatives end up matching the environment. I think it’s a really hard thing to plan…

  23. Tim, excellent question on the capacity to change – and one that can take a whole post by itself :-). I am with you that it can be only partially directed and it is not that simple for most firms. Here are my views on that.

    One of the qualities of complex adaptive systems is that the closer the system is to the equilibrium, the less adaptive it is; and conversely, the farther it moves away from the equilibrium the more adaptive it becomes. In other words, firms who have been in a ‘stable’ environment and have been just cruising along (in equilibrium) is going to find it extremely difficult to change and adapt to new situations. In order to do that they will have to first rewind a lot of their learnings in the current equilibrium and on top of that incorporate new learnings to get to a new equilibrium. Sometimes it takes a catastrophic even like the financial meltdown for firms to wake up from their ‘sleep’ mode and try to climb out of the hole they are in – and unfortunately many firms fail because in the long period of equilibrium, a state of rigor-mortis had set in and now that there needs to be a change, the firm extremities cannot move fast enough to get to the new equilibrium. The lesson here is that even in good times, a firm should not be resting but should constantly try to move its equilibrium so that it always stays nimble.

    So in this way, the capacity to change is as you said partially directed. I see it analogous to the Darwinian theory of natural selection. Instead of rules for change, what a firm should be doing is to create an ecosystem that can grow, adapt, and even mutate based on its interactions with the outside world and environment. Really successful firms (imho) would have build their structure in such a way that the various departments and groups are honed in on anticipating change and moving before the change hits.

    Anyway, sorry to be rambling again — what can I say, you bring out topics that stimulates more than a one-liner response :-)


  24. Thanks for that Ned (and don’t apologise – it’s a great response!). The idea of framing it around closeness to equilibrium is a really nice way to frame it. It seems obvious now that you’ve said it, but I never quite thought of it like that before!

  25. I highly recommend Four Steps to the Epiphany by Steve Blank. He really nails the Customer Development cycle. Even though Steve doesn’t say that, what he advocates is balance: Customer Development in parallel with Product Development. It works for disruptive and sustaining technologies alike because it is a human-based, empathy-driven process.

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