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Empathic Design: 5 Ways to Get Your Innovation Mojo Back

Roland Alston, Appian
August 15, 2019

Dorothy Leonard, Professor, Emerita at Harvard Business School
Dorothy Leonard, Professor, Emerita, Harvard Business School andChief Advisor,
Leonard-Barton Group

In the age of ever-changing customer expectations, taking the wrong approach to innovation can be lethal. If you follow the conventional wisdom of listening to customers, investing in continuous improvement and watching the bottom line, you could end up getting continuously better at things customers no longer want.

Much better to see the world the way your customers do. And if you put that together with what your organization is capable of delivering, you'll end up with a lot more innovative ideas than you'd can get from a traditional market research approach.

So says innovation expert Dorothy Leonard.

Leonard says that the problem with traditional, market-research-approaches to innovation is that we ask customers to tell us what they want.Better to take an empathic design approach, she says, where you try to reveal what customers want and desire instead.

So, how exactly do you do that? By immersing yourself in your customer's environment, says Leonard, and looking at the world through their eyes.

It turns out that Leonard knows a thing or two about innovation. She's an acclaimed author and speaker and a long-time thought leader in the field of knowledge management and innovation.

She's also a Harvard University, William J. Abernathy Professor of Business Administration Emerita with over 30 years of research experience in knowledge management, consulting and teaching about innovation, technology commercialization and organizational capabilities under her belt.

Her books, "Wellsprings of Knowledge: Building and Sustaining the Sources of Innovation" and "Deep Smarts: How to Cultivate and Transfer Enduring Business Wisdom" are considered seminal in the field.

In this republished post, Leonard drops some serious knowledge on how to develop a deeper understanding of your customers' unarticulated needs and inspire innovative ideas for new products and services.Read and enjoy.

Appian: Good morning, Professor. Over the years, you've done some pioneering work on the topic of building and sustaining sources of innovation. We'll talk about that shortly.But, first, give our readers a quick overview of what you're doing right now. Tell us about the Leonard Barton Group, and the work you do there with clients.

Leonard: We have two streams of business, one run by Gavin Barton, who is an executive coach. He provides hands-on coaching to help business leaders deal with various management issues, including succession. The other stream, which I run, focuses on helping corporations figure out how to preserve, what we call their "Deep Smarts."

Deep Smarts: What it Is. Why it Matters

Appian: Deep Smarts? What is that, and how would you define it?

Leonard: The short definition of Deep Smarts is: business critical, experience-based, knowledge. We help companies deal with many pain points related to people retiring and taking with them a lot of knowledge know-how, skills, critical thinking and capabilities.

"Another challenge organizations face is a lack of bench depth they have too few people in key positions. And if these people leave, for whatever reason, companies lose critical, experience-based, knowledge."

We focus on the hardest kind of knowledge to transfer, which is soft skills and tacit knowledge--knowledge that has never been written down, documented or sometimes even articulated.

Appian: Intuitively, the risk of losing that kind of knowledge could do big damage to companies over the long termÖ

Leonard: Yes, we believe that if you look at the long-term success of companies, their core capabilities are almost always based at least partially on the deep smarts of their most experienced employees. So that's why we think it's so very important for organizations to preserve those deep smarts.

Fear of Failing

Appian: Another barrier to success for companies is fear of failing something that can really inhibit innovation. Why is fear of failure such a big barrier at so many organizations?

Leonard: Because we make it that way. And we persist. That reminds me of one of my favorite stories about fear of failure, and how it can get in the way of innovation.

When I used to consult with companies on innovation, I'd ask them to tell me about the climate in their organization for innovation.

Two executives at one of my clients said: "We've got a new CEO, and he says we've got to innovate...But you know you really can't. And I said: "Really? How do you know that you can't? So, they looked at each other, and one of them said: "Tell her about Mary."

Well, it turns out that Mary failed to deliver on this project, and her career was over.

So, I asked: "When did that happen? And they said it happened about 10 years ago. Then, they followed up that story with several others all of them about a decade old.

"Think about it. All of this had happened before the new CEO came into the picture. So, he was fighting against persistent company myths, from the get-go. And that's one of the challenges you face as a new leader coming into an organization."

You have to figure out the deeply embedded beliefs about failure.

Empathic Design Key to Engagement

Appian: Another topic that you've touched on in your research is the "voice of the customer." Now that we're in the age of digital transformation, is the voice of the customer concept still relevant?

Leonard: It depends on what you mean by "voice of the customer." Innovators still need to learn what customers need and want. But for decades, I've emphasized in my writings that customers often have no idea what their vendors and suppliers can do.

"And digital transformation is making it increasingly hard to anticipate the ability of companies to create products that customers can imagine or even know to ask for."

So, I don't see that voice of the customer has become less relevant. But I would also mention as I do when I talk about the concept of "empathic design" that customers don't know what to ask for, in part, because they don't know what you can provide them. And I think that's becoming increasingly true.

Appian: That's a good segue to the topic of empathic design, a concept you and co-author Jeffrey Rayport introduced back in 1997.

You recently published an article in Harvard Business Review called: 5 Ways to Design Products Customers Love. It talks about empathic design. Break it down for our readers. What's the big idea behind empathic design, and why should companies care about it?

"The important thing about empathic design is that it's about reaching into themind of customers to identify needs and desires that they are unlikely to articulate themselves.There are many ways to create that kind of empathy, which is basically an emotional attachment with customers and their perspective."

Uncovering Your Customers' Unarticulated Needs

Leonard: What all forms of empathic design techniques have in common is an emphasis on exploring the unarticulated needs and wants customers have about getting a job done whatever that job might be.There are many ways to look at the world through the eyes of the customer, and make an emotional connection between the design of a product or service and the end user.

Appian: Isn't the iPhone a good example of that? It's amazing how consumers have developed such a strong emotional attachment to the innovative design of the iPhone.

Leonard: Yes. That was a very clever design. And part of that design was knowing what was possible, and then looking at how people used a combination of phones, personal assistants and computers. Apple recognized that all that functionality could be designed into a single device.

The iPhone was Steve Jobs' vision. But it was also a heck of a lot of empathic design.

Appian: There's a lot of talk about transforming the customer journey. Should empathic design be part of that process? And, what are some specific techniques companies can use to connect with customers in the product development process?

Leonard: The thing is to be able to see the world the way your customers do. And if you put that together with what your organization is capable of delivering, you'll end up with a lot more creative ideas than you'd can get from a traditional market research approach.

"In traditional market research, you're asking customers to tell you what they want. With empathic design, you're trying to reveal what customers want and desire, by immersing yourself in their environment, and looking at the world through their eyes."

Appian: So, what are some specific techniques that companies can use to do that?

5 Ways to Get Your Innovation Mojo Back

    • First, there's the user/designer approach you start the design process with someone who is both a user and a designer. They have the technical background to design something that they themselves would want to use. That's number one.

    • Second, take an ethnographic approach of observation and interview where you observe how customers get things done in their native habitat, as it were. This allows you to see what's working, what's not working, and what customers need that you can provide whether or not they are aware of those needs.

    • The third technique is to play the role of a customer. Right now, in a lot of medical facilities, they're hiring people to pretend to be patients. Their primary objective is to train doctors. But in the process, they can also uncover problems that they can innovate around. It's about creating simulations that help designers know what's needed. So, for example, if you have someone who understands hospital processes, and they undergo the experience as a patient, they are better able to find opportunities for innovation different ways of checking in and out, for example, or more functional dressing rooms.

    • The fourth technique is immersion getting totally involved into the culture of the customer, so that you know what would make them happy.

    • The fifth is a technique which you might not intuitively think of as an empathic design technique. Designers often create artifacts clients can interact with, to understand their needs. And sometimes those artifacts are physical non-functional prototypes--that define shape and size, or demonstrate function but not appearance.

Leonard: The underlying idea is to enable designers to empathize with customers, through using one of these 5 techniques, to create something that the customer would never ask for.This includes processes and experiences, not just products. Think about the medical experience of interacting with a hospital. It helps for a doctor to be a patient, so he or she can understand how to make the patient experience better.

Appian: Isn't that what Sony did with the Walkman, when they took a block of wood and gave it to their industrial designers, and said this is how big it should be?

Leonard: Yes. And that block of wood was an artifact around which the designers could coalesce, and discuss and think. But, artifacts don't have to be physical.

Some designers create cognitive artifacts, ideas, mental prototypes that enable interaction with a customer ideas that clients and designers can gradually define ever more clearlyÖlike the Japanese designing a car for tight urban spaces, and calling it "tall boy" to emphasize its vertical dimensions.

So, this empathic design isn't a new idea. But it works.

Making the Inspiration Leap

Appian: You wrote an article in Harvard Business Review called "Spark Innovation through Empathic Design". One of the things that caught my attention was your story about radio technologyÖand how when radio first came along, it was used solely for Morse code voice communication. Consumers didn't know enough to ask for broadcasting capability, because they didn't know it was even possible.

Leonard: There are lots of stories like that. I think being close to the customer environment makes it possible to make leaps of inspiration. But, it has to be timed right. Remember the Newton device that Apple came out with? Well, it was a total flop. And the problem wasn't the concept. It was that the idea was ahead of the capabilities to support it.

"So, there's an aspect of timing to innovation. And there's also an aspect of continuous exploration at the edges. I believe that every organization needs to dedicate a percentage of their resources to thinking beyond the immediate horizon."

Organizations need people with their antennas in the environment, talking about new technologies, staying on top of new trends, thinking about innovation over the long term not just over the next three years.