Three things came together to make me think of this post:
- 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…
- 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.
- 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)