What does empathy have to do with innovation?


The success of any organisation is greatly influenced by user focused product and service design. User experience influences attitudes, expectations, motivations and is directly related to emotion. Where traditional approaches to product and service development have underestimated the value of this, innovative solutions embrace it by embracing empathy.

Innovation is user driven, not product or service driven. Ideas can only become innovations with user response, engagement and demand.

As a conscious reaction to the cultural shifts that are constantly happening around us, empathic design is a necessity to harness guidance from users. With the market full of similar products and services, the user can be overwhelmed by new offers, features and possibilities. What do they want? What do they need? Do they truly know themselves? As the designer, we should listen closer to the user’s needs and expectations rather than to the direct voice of the user. They may not themselves even realise the whole spectrum and complexities of their wants and needs. Your job is to connect the dots and make sense of the data they are not even aware of. By tapping into the user psyche, stepping into their shoes, we can realise their true expectations, hopes and fears. We begin to think how they think, crave what they crave. By taking this empathetic approach to design we can then correctly understand the requirements needed to build the features of a truly innovative solution.

A lot of product and service design is about asking questions. Like a detective, we must ask the right questions to discover the right answers. But what kind of questions should we be asking? By being truly empathetic with the user, we can start asking questions that allow us to gain a fuller view of their needs whether expressed or unexpressed, conscious or unconscious. Therefore we should align the product with the user rather than just asking product specific questions.

What do I want it to help me accomplish?
How do I want to feel because of it?
How do I want to be perceived because of having it?

You may say, why focus on designing solutions or creating ideas that the user did not ask for? Is that user centric design? The answer is that the user has not asked for them, yet. And sometimes may never ask for them if not presented with the opportunity. Innovations surprise the user, they have harnessed a knowledge about people and their interaction with things that you were not expecting. Take the iPhone for example; when introducing it to the market, Apple showed a deep understanding of the lifestyle of millions of people all over the world. They considered the volume of tasks we undertake and the sheer pace of the daily routine that we face in the professional world, as well as a craving for entertainment during our leisure. The combination of empathy with the user and the use of available technology led to the design of something that would upturn the industry of telecommunications. Apple changed the definition of the what we thought was one of the most basic tools of the modern age. Now a mobile phone is no longer just a phone, it is multitasked device enabling a certain lifestyle in a modern, digital world.

As with Apple, suddenly the wants and needs of a user are now obvious and the competitors begin to play the “me-too” game of copying, replicating and trying to improve upon the same innovative solution. The users’ direct expectations have now changed. By beginning with empathetic design you can push innovation beyond the production of the same solutions only better. Developing a deep, empathetic understanding of users’ unarticulated needs can challenge industry assumptions and lead to a shift in corporate strategy. By acknowledging and introducing empathic design, you take control of the situation and harness the opportunity, because truly, the user is driving innovation whether you know it or not.