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.
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.
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.
Social media platforms or social media network, knowledge sharing has been the lifeline by which people interact, self-organize and form a context.
Designing social media platforms for knowledge sharing has always been a challenge. So the question is, can Social capital come to the rescue? An analysis of the Social capital framework within the organization or a social set up provide us the answers?
Useful Note: By platform, we mean the computing platform and the necessary software code, rules and provisions required for running it.
A year 2003 article on The Economist “A question of wealth” talks about “How Nations and organizations become wealthy ? Harvard University professor Robert Putnam wrote a very famous influential essay “Bowling alone” where he says Americans would be far more unlikely to join the clubs and social circles in the 1990’s than they would in the 1950’s. He came to this conclusion after noting the decline in ‘Bowling league” memberships in America. Though this has been accepted uncritically, the basic and proven assumption is that all
All human beings by nature are social animals.
Sociologists believe that there is the hand of the growing field of Social Capital which sways wealth, power and status in favor of nations and organizations which have a high degree of Social capital with an emphasis on “Trust and Community” Let us explore this further and bring it to the context of designing social media platforms for knowledge sharing.
We have been seeing time and again that traditional tools for knowledge sharing and knowledge management have been failing the test of acceptance and “institutionalization”.
Useful Note: Wikipedia describes institutionalization as a process of embedding a social norm or a social behavior within a large organization or a social group.
Irrespective of where they are used, for in-house purposes within an organization or as an independent tool within the consumer web space, their acceptance is low. Systems for knowledge sharing cannot be designed from a technological perspective alone. We cannot just look down upon the social, informal and non-canonical nature of our interactions in social set ups and as they happen in other social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
We have to embed the knowledge sharing system within an existing social setup of which they are a part. Ignoring the social side of the network has been one of the key factors for the fall and resistance to such knowledge sharing tools.
Then how can such knowledge sharing systems be designed? The concept of “Social capital” and its analysis has been hailed as the best path forward by many contemporary researchers and practitioners in this field. We will look into their work in a little while from now as we move along. But before that we will understand, the current challenges to the design and development of knowledge sharing systems using social media platforms.
Current challenges of social media platforms for knowledge sharing
The importance and the value of managing knowledge and sharing can never be understated. We are living in a globalized world with increasing complexity. With geographically dispersed teams, the complexity increases. There is a saying that “the intellectual capital of a firm is far greater than the asset base and the intrinsic value it has”. There is of-course the competitive advantage attached to it.
But getting a good foothold and grasp of managing knowledge and sharing is critical. The challenges from an organizational perspective usually come from
The IT function- a key role player in facilitating knowledge sharing.
Management commitment, priorities and alignment.
Individual learning Vs. Community learning.
1.The key role of the IT function
The challenge is inherent in the fact that IT can support and improve knowledge sharing but it ignores the social conditions that facilitate knowledge sharing among groups. The successful outcomes of such systems come from paying attention to appropriate social context, norms, position, reward systems and leadership.
IT cannot be independent. It has to be embedded within the social norm. If it is not so, then it is a challenge and presents itself in various pockets of resistance within the groups.
Brown and Duguid in their book “Social life of information” wrote that
“Knowledge only has its use, if it can be related to people”.
People would like to know the context from whom it was originated and why? This provides the important “Meta knowledge”. This is also one of the reasons why recorded knowledge is not reused.
Tacit knowledge which exists in people’s minds need not be codified into structured explicit knowledge. This is where social media platforms come to the rescue. It supports elicitation of knowledge in its various forms and fills those gaps. Meta knowledge cannot be recorded in intranets or repositories they need social media platforms.
Huysman and De witt wrote in their book “Knowledge sharing in practice” that
People want to share experiences with other people with whom they look up for support and where there is trust, safety and mutual respect.
2.Management commitment and priorities
(If you are looking to build your own independent social media platform, then you can skip this section, this section is geared more towards in-house usage)
One thing is quite clear for successful knowledge sharing is that this initiative has to be a win-win situation. Increasingly, this goes in for a toss as the management from a top-down approach exert the need to control and monitor knowledge.
The very act of extracting knowledge from knowledgeable and experienced workers, builds resistance. But actually, this is an attempt to manage knowledge, make it more effective and available to others.
There is also a notion that when a core employee leaves, he or she takes away the core competency away from them.
There is a universally known fact that “employees don’t want to share knowledge anyway”. Management priorities of improving knowledge sharing is good. It is in the right direction but it has to be in a win-win situation.
3.Individual vs Community learning
Traditionally, so far what we have seen and still remains largely is that knowledge sharing is for individual gain and learning is supported at the level of individuals.
Most of the repository systems are built with this focus to enhance the flow of information to individuals. But what we are forgetting to acknowledge is that most knowledge is shared and generated within a social context and setup.
Learning these days cannot be separated from the social community. It is very much intrinsic to the existence of such knowledge that is generated. So knowledge sharing tools must support social relationships that exist among people and include it as part of the design requirements.
In the next section, we will take an introductory look into the framework for designing social media platforms for knowledge sharing and the ‘socio-technique’ analysis on which the social media platforms need to be designed.
An introduction to the Social capital framework
Existing research and several pioneering authors and practitioners have always been pointing out to the multidisciplinary aspects when designing social media platforms or social media networks. The disciplines range from Mathematics, Information technology, Economics, Sociology, Cognitive psychology and Ethnography.
From an IT perspective, when you want to create a sharing network, the primary aspect is to create an intranet which has 1. A shared information workspace – something like ‘sharepoint’ from Microsoft for example. 2. A communication space- which can use asynchronous mode like email or synchronous mode like video conferencing for people to share and bounce thoughts and ideas. 3. A collaboration space – like a groupware, workflow system where people can cooperate and complete work together.
The idea here is that the IT sharing network or the intranet and the social media platform need to converge and exist together. When such co-existence happens then that is the domain of the socio-technique and in other words, it is the social media platform which has knowledge sharing embedded in it that is coming to fruition.
There is a tremendous “interplay” between the social and technical aspects. This interplay is necessary and also continuously evolving. Understanding this interplay is a challenge and also the key success factor.
The development, implementation and use of such social media platforms needs to be flexible in order to adapt it to a particular environment, this makes it complex as well.
It is complex, due to a concept called ‘Drifting’. Social media platforms have the tendency to evolve and drift. It creates its own path, character and stance over time.
Useful Note: Drifting as a social concept, is the process of slowly moving away and taking one’s own path and self-organizing and evolving.
It has the capacity to self –organize, adds the human element of “Context” in all in its interactions, sharing and spreading in its usage.
Ethnography and its influence
Another important sphere of influence in the design of social media platforms for knowledge sharing is the subject of Ethnography. Ethnography, which is the study of cultures and their mutual understanding and differences does give us a method to this complexity.
But then the argument is that even though Ethnography carries out detailed studies on the work processes and their cultural settings and yet the gap exists when IT takes up the requirements for designing social media platforms for knowledge sharing.
Possible reasons are the complexity involved in translating the requirements and also we are dealing with two sets of people (IT function and the people working on Ethnography) who are divergently different in their approach, thoughts and ideas.
Perhaps the most important concept in understanding the social capital framework came from Bressand and Distler. This brings us to light when designing social media platforms we will have to study the underlying current of “Info-culture” in any set up.
Many a times, IT designers ignore this when designing an knowledge sharing system and analyze the ‘infrastructure’ and the ‘info-structure’. Infrastructure stands for all the physical hardware and software. The ‘info –structure’ is the formal organization, governing rules, formal business processes, hierarchies and strategy by which people exchange information and knowledge. The ‘info-culture’ is the social relationships and the culture that is prevalent in the group. It is social norm of how people relate to one another.
Many researchers at the forefront of the design for a new social media platforms express the need for an analysis of the ‘info-culture’ of the organizational setup. This is mainly argued as the third most important aspect in the analysis for design and not to be ignored.
The cultural norms, social relationships, safety and trust are the key concepts that need analysis. It is surprising that not much has been written about this in the contemporary literature for requirement analysis for design of social media platforms for knowledge sharing.
The social capital framework provides a promising potential to design social media platforms for success and acceptance.
What is Social capital? And how do we acknowledge it?
We might have heard about Physical capital, Financial capital, Economic capital and also Human capital. A relatively newer concept, Social capital has been in the news and has been researched and talked about a lot.
Social Capital is the sum total of the trust, social norms, and most importantly the mutual and shared understanding you have in a social relationship.
Social capital can then be used effectively for knowledge sharing. Increasingly, people have to come to know that social capital forms one of the important aspects for determining an organization’s economic growth.
Physical capital and Financial capital determine the economic prospects and growth of the organization in the short term. They are hugely dependent on the vagaries of various global movements and indications. It is the Social capital aspect through its economic actors, the relationships they foster with each other determines the long term economic growth and development of the organization.
Human capital on one hand looks at the individual abilities but –
Social capital utilizes the collective abilities of all the actors on the social media platform.
Needless to say, Social capital removes the bias of individual learning.
It is emphasized that the use of Social capital analysis in designing and developing social media platforms for knowledge sharing greatly reduces, if not altogether eliminates the risks and challenges posed by managerial and technological ones, which have seen earlier. A good degree of diagnosis and analysis of a group’s social setup, its Social capital and improving the Social capital level of that group will greatly enhance the adoption and acceptance of the social media platforms.
People will have more opportunity to share knowledge within themselves and will be motivated to do so even as they have abilities and the capacity to share knowledge (Tacit knowledge as well). These are some of the elements and structural underpinnings which we need to understand for analyzing Social capital for designing social media platforms.
As the trend moves from individual learning to community based learning, there is a growing importance and acceptance of knowledge communities within organizations and outside. They form a trust circle where people can safely exchange knowledge and collaborate with each other creating an environment for innovation to happen. Such open collaborative networks thrive on the degree of Social capital that exists within that group or community
Nahapiet and Ghosal in their book “Knowledge sharing in practice “ introduce three dimensions of Social capital namely, Structural, Cognitive and Relational.
Structural analysis of Social capital points to the network ties, the current organizational structure and also to network configurations.
Cognitive analysis points to the aspects of shared language, shared abilities and similar stories.
And finally, Relational analysis points to the aspects of social norms, trust and motivation.
Another interesting dimension was introduced by Adler and Kwon. They talk about Social capital classification in terms of opportunity, ability and motivation.
If we analyze both these approaches, we are talking about
“Who shares” and “How do they do that” this is from a structural opportunity standpoint. Research points that people within the same social hierarchy, create dense networks within themselves and there is opportunity for everyone to contribute within this group. “How do they do that” is something that needs to be explored. For example:- Top senior Managers working in MNCs form a leadership group within the organization.
“What is shared” this is from a cognitive ability standpoint. People with similar stories in their lives, connect. People also share and connect based on abilities. They will be able to offer advice and suggestion to others with whom they can relate to.
“Why and when” this is from a relational motivational standpoint. Social norms, trust and safety play a huge role and influence an entire gamut of people. Evidence and research proves that there is enough motivation among people to willingly contribute knowledge and suggestions based on trust and safety.
Simple requirement analysis for social media platforms
When we are doing a requirement analysis and information gathering the following table helps us in this task.
The table gives us a framework to start the requirements gathering with the research questions asked, important elements to consider, the various dimensions and the levels involved. Through this framework one can understand the stakeholders involved, the support and feedback needed from them.
A small note here, the stakeholders need not be within the same organization. If you are designing independent social media platforms for knowledge sharing, the stakeholders are much more diverse and heterogeneous. This makes the design much more interesting.
As discussed earlier, an analysis of Social capital provides an in-depth functionality that needs to be embedded into the social media platforms for knowledge sharing.
When we look at the structural dimension of social capital, the focus is more on network density in terms of the number of actors who are connected to each other. Studying such density would reveal “with whom people share knowledge” and “Who shares with who” and how do they do it.
If there is a requirement gap we bridge the holes functionally so that the structural map reaches far and wide and as well group penetration. For example: the concept of groups is so popular in Linkedin. The stronger the ties, they will share tacit information.
From a cognitive stand point, we analyze the group’s ability to understand each other and whether they have shared mutual understanding, shared stories and similar problems in life and career. If such ties are stronger and if their cognitive intelligence is high, they will be able to share tacit information as well.
A useful note:– Not much attention is given to this dimension. It’s good to lower the cognitive barrier, provide functionality in such a way that “like minds attract like minds”. Only if the cognitive barrier is low, people will be able to share their personal stories on social media platforms otherwise they will look at sharing the same on a one-on-one basis, face to face.
If there is an expert, his expertise requires validation and we contact him in person to validate his expertise. The same should happen on a social media platform as well where people will have access to such tools and they will transfer tacit knowledge where it is required.
We need to also understand that this requirements gathering also has to take into account the culture of the setup. Apart from standard methodologies for gathering information from hierarchical setups, methodologies used in Ethnography and pattern recognition supports the overall process.
In a relational dimension, we need to understand that whether members are motivated and are willing to share.
We have to address the question “What is in it for me to share?” This provides the motivational part along with shared norms, trust, safety and respect. Not answering this question makes social media platforms fail the test of institutionalization.
When there is “reciprocity”, then there is a no “motivational barrier”. The systems should facilitate or have such provisions for reciprocal response functionality. A good example is the “Facebook like”. Other things to take care are status differences, respect and trust.
Trust is one of the most important factors. If there is mutual trust then there is easier knowledge sharing, tacit as well. When people want to learn and want others to succeed as well, then such high motivation creates mutual trust which is highly beneficial to the success of social media platforms.
The stronger the ties between individuals, the greater the sharing of tacit knowledge happens. Sharing tacit knowledge requires a high degree of trust.
Finally, existing research reveal only this much. For further analysis and greater success, we need to carry out ethnographic studies for knowledge sharing. Appropriating IT to a specific social set up or organizational group is a challenge.
So far, not much has been written about how “IT will be used”. We once again comeback to the same saying that social media platforms usage is evolving and it is evolving culture and attitude. Groups constantly self-organize and we need to be cognizant of this fact when we are designing social media platforms for knowledge sharing.
I would like to thank the following authors for their in-depth research. I have referred the following books below. You can buy them on Amazon as well.
Social life of information, Burn and Duguid
Webwork information seeking and knowledge work on the www, Choo c Detlor and Turnbull