Empathic design innovation and social networks – The roads meet

Empathic design

Empathic design has got the potential to redirect a company’s activities and technological prowess to diversify into totally new unseen areas.

I stumbled upon an old article published in Harvard Business review in 1997 titled “ Spark Innovation through Empathic design”. by Leonard D and Rayport J.F. Quite an interesting read. The authors as usual from the classic publishing standards of HBR have given good examples how leadership from global corporations have used and adopted Empathic design in their innovation practices.

The concept is still relevant today even after 20 years and what we have been seeing is that not many global corporations have adopted it ever since.I was particularly curious on how a social network can help and facilitate with ease a classic design concept like Empathic design.

We know that companies compete every day with each other in having the best new idea for their products and services. To launch the best and succeed. And as such, initiatives like the “voice of the customer”, “Listen to the customer” were launched. But then, such initiatives lacked the ability to guide the product development or the service improvement teams, as the customers themselves were limited in their imagination for new innovation.

Traditional market research solicits information from customers asking for their needs and wants. But what happens is that, customers seldom give their responses truthfully. There is also the assumption that their needs will not be met anyway. Companies cannot develop products based on customer feedback alone because, they (customers) have not recognized or seen the product themselves.

Now the question is, how do we design new products and services or innovate in these scenarios? The answer lies in Empathic design.

The foundation for Empathic design lies in the “observation of people”, the way they use their surroundings, products and services.

Empathic design is quite different from the traditional market research or focus group discussions. The observation is carried out in the customer’s own environment which is usually not done in traditional research methods or focus groups.

Empathic design follows the techniques of simple gathering of information, analyzing that information and applying that information back on the product or service. Such observation can be done or embedded even in a social network beneficially. We will talk about some possibilities bit later.

Empathic design as such is multidisciplinary. It requires high degree of collaboration skills while meaningfully moving from one subject to another. So is innovation. Ideas can come from anywhere.

Normally, we do not see Empathic design being taught in Universities as a course. It is an acquired skill and not many big companies practice this.It is interdisciplinary by nature. Data needs to be gathered from multiple sources. Anthropology is a good discipline to start with from an Empathic design perspective.

Useful note: – The Wiki states Anthropology is the study of the various aspects of humans in the present and past societies. It looks at the norms, behavior and culture of the people in the past and in the present.

Many researchers and practicing management consultants have said that acquiring Empathic design as a skill is a worthwhile investment for the company. Moreover, it is low cost and low risk. It serves to clearly focus and identify customer needs and leads to breakthrough thinking in launching new products and services.

Traditional market research vs Empathic design
Traditional market research vs Empathic design

Why traditional market research methods sometimes don’t work

When a product or service already exists in the market, traditional market research is very adept at gaining useful information from the public. When consumers already know a product or service and have seen similar products or services in a different context then they are able to provide better feedback and communicate their needs.

There are some psychological reasons on why we may not get the results we want by conducting market research surveys, questionnaires and conducting focus group discussions.

Consumers get accustomed to the way a product or service works after prolonged use. They might have even developed work around for minor inconveniences. They get used to these inconveniences over time and they become habits. So they do not recognize them as an indication for a different need or even change from it.

Another big reason is that, sometimes it is quite difficult to completely capture consumer’s response and reaction no matter how good the market research is. Consumers give sub-optimal answers to please the researchers to avoid embarrassment by revealing answers which they think are inappropriate. Sometimes there is the researcher’s bias in the investigation.

Custom reports are submitted by giving expected answers received from consumers and also biased statistical logic which needs to fit in into the norm. Product designers are faced with the situation to accept such custom reports. Now, can such custom reports be taken for a design approach?

Observation provides better and reliable data.

Participation in a highly focused niche social network with a diverse knowledgeable audience can provide the feedback. Observing their reactions, interacting with them and getting their instant feedback can provide reliable information for designers.

What we learn from Observation (A method for Empathic design)

By observing, we get to know many things and the information is highly valuable. To start with, by observing consumers we can get that sort of information that normal market research methods cannot give.

The emphasis is on observing consumers using the product or service in their own physical environment. This produces valuable insights. Insights on how the product is being used and what prompted the use. Needs which have not been talked about at all. Insights on the intangible areas for example, the feelings that are invoked when buying a particular product are some of the aspects that we learn through Observation as a method.

What drives people to use a certain product? What were the circumstances and situations that led people to use a certain product?  Sometimes when we study and observe consumers, they might use a product or service beyond its intended use. What motivates a consumer to buy a certain product over the other? It could be even the association with a better product.


An example for Empathic design
An example for Empathic design in Mobile phone design

For example, Samsung went with the Android operating system and became an instant hit. The same did not happen with Nokia and the Windows combination.

Another example would be in exploring market opportunities. The use of coconut oil for both cooking as well medicinal purposes.

I was reading through another article in one of Autodesk’s blogs on “how to design behavior based smart tools” good insight by Kursat Ozenc, the author.  Here Kursat talks about user motivation  and takes up three motivational factors of Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose to emphasize the need for design based on user behavior. This is very much similar to Empathic design based on observation methods. We will talk about this in our next blog post.

When we observe consumers in the way they use products, we can explore newer opportunities.

We can learn a great deal by observing how the product or service is fitting in into the customer’s own environment.  When we observe a customer working on a product in his or her own physical environment, we can learn what are the gadgets or devices that he is using with the main product. Designers can learn whether these secondary other products can also be incorporated with the main product.

Another important aspect is the intangible areas surrounding the product or service. Customers may not give direct feedback on certain things like the particular feeling it invokes when buying a particular product. These  are all the  opportunities waiting to be tapped.

Empathic design brings together, the consumers who have the need and the product designers and manufacturers who can get it done.

It fully leverages the capability of the company.

How Social networks influence Empathic design.

Empathic design may be about collecting data as usual to a good extent. But that data represents consumer behavior. Smart companies need to tap into the behavior of Consumers and information it generates to fuel innovation.

Companies and individuals participating in social networks can give the cues to the behavior. They can introduce a mockup of the product or previews of the yet to be released new products and services. They can observe how participants behave and use the product mockup. Their observations of user behavior becomes an important source of information for Empathic design for designers and manufacturers.

Having said this, Empathic design is no way, a standalone approach. Empathic design complements the traditional market research methods.

We need innovative ideas to meet and exceed customer needs and Empathic design does just that. It enables product designers and manufacturers to have a fresh perspective and gain knowledge. Empathic design through social networks offers that conduit.

Designing and gathering customer needs using the methods of Empathic design with focused social networks offers an asset and this combination can be used to create innovative products in never imagined ways.

Further reading resources:-

  1. User experience design -from Interaction design foundation.
  2. The article from HBR on Empathic design by Leonard D and Rayport J.F.

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Ramkumar Yaragarla

I am 43 years old. Founder, Loving dad and Husband. Worked as an IT Business analyst and program manager in several Fortune 100 companies.Alumnus at the University of Warwick, UK. I love the WWW and write on Social aspects of information, Social collaboration, Digital Sociology, Digital Humanities and Work life balance. I enjoy playing on the beach with my 9 year old daughter. I am open to your suggestions and comments.
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