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Empathy is at the Heart of Design


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Blog post by Joseph Dager

The difference between the thought process embedded in EDCA (Service Design) and the other disciplines of Lean can be summed up in one word: Empathy! It is a major differentiator between the traditional process methodologies of Six Sigma, and I say this tongue–in-cheek, Lean. Many times when you review Design for Six Sigma, Lean Startup, Lean Product Development, and Lean Design (the list goes on), seldom when you search (like never) the index of the book will you find the words Empathy.

In Lean you will find the word Respect for People and it is rigorously applied by most Lean practitioners. However, it is typically applied from an internal viewpoint. I do not want to imply that it does not carry over externally (Customer Experience will mimic the Employee Experience) but seldom do I see it addressed. In healthcare, I believe you will see it addressed more than anywhere else at the moment, but I believe that discipline was built from a compassionate side to begin with. It was not guided by Lean as an enabler of empathy.

Becoming a customer centric requires an organization to understand the emotional needs and difficulties of their prospects and customers. Our sales and marketing efforts should not be centered on getting the message out – it is about bringing the message in. Most organizations struggle in their attempts as they evaluate seas of data and lose the personality of the customer using such terminology as markets or value streams. They have a tendency to view marketing as product centric rather than customer/user centric.

You don’t wake up one day and become customer centric. It is not quite that easy. However, a concentrated effort by sales and marketing with just a few priorities can start your organization on the right path and radically improve your chances of moving from product to customer centric.

  1. Reduce complexity: Few companies can simply market by collecting more demographic data, psychographic or subjective information. Data should not be ignored; however, in the absence of a customer context, data will provide little value and be desperately in need of direction.
  2. Establish the user experience as the basis of collaboration: Framing the marketing effort in the context of the customer allows everyone the opportunity to participate. Everyone can act as the customer and can contribute insight about how the user experience can be improved. Understanding how empowerment varies among roles and evolves over time can help to create priorities and informed decisions.
  3. Use maps to guide the way: Mapping products and personas in terms of needs, desires, and aspirations fuels the marketing process with clarity and empathy from the outset. This is not only a powerful tool for understanding how to appeal to customers, but it can also shape the debate about trade-offs that is an inherent part of implementation. Customer insight can reveal value, and non-value added task. The visual understanding provided by mapping can provide a reality check and a benchmark throughout the sales and marketing process. The direction should he determined by the needs of customers and the particular company’s strategy. Strive for the ability to see where there is a disconnect between your offerings in the market and the desires of the customer to improve the user experience and bridge the gap.
  4. Aim for a compass, not a GPS: Identifying an opportunity zone can increase the chances of success by focusing a team’s attention on a fixed number of priorities. These form the basis for experimentation during the sales and marketing process. The idea is to provide a clear direction but allows freedom to all parties to generate different approaches.

My research for this came from the recent reading of Predictable Magic: Unleash the Power of Design Strategy to Transform Your Business. The authors use these four interactions on How to Create a Design Strategy. I found the same principles applying directly to customer centric marketing. In the book, there is a special tool that the authors call the Psycho-Aesthetics Map. This is a two-dimensional mapping process in which the vertical axis shows the degree of need, from essential through to aspirational, while the horizontal axis shows the degree of interactivity from passive through to immersive. Existing products can be placed in their appropriate locations on the map, as can different groups of consumers, in order to identify gaps, which might be suitable for the design of new products. I created a slideshow of from these principles demonstrating the connection to Maslow’s hierarchy and Pine and Gillmore’s, The Experience Economy.

The area of Empathy is very evident in Service Design and Design Thinking. A few more thoughts about this. 

Empathy: Seung Chan Lim, nicknamed SLIM has engrossed himself into a special project that I found rather unique. The project name is Realizing Empathy and below is an excerpt from a podcast.

Slim: What’s really funny is… Basically, I would almost categorize myself as an empirical researcher. Because as much as I love books and if you come to my place you’ll see so many books, I don’t really read them as much as I probably should. I’m much more of an experiential person. So taking classes and acting is like another way of understanding, what does it mean to act instead of reading a book about it. I decided to just do it. Basically, what I learned in acting class is that it broke my preconceived notion of the idea that acting is pretending. To a certain degree, yes; there is a pretend in it. But by and large, what actors do is they try to bring in their own experiences and bring it into the moment when they’re on stage. But they do it under a frame. They do it under the name of some other character that’s inside a play.

They do it in a situation that is not their own. But what they’re really doing is they’re accessing their own personal experience, triggering them in the moment. So when the audience sees it, they may think it’s the character doing it, but they feel that what they’re doing is real because it is real. They’re trying their very best to be true to themselves.

That’s a very different way of thinking about acting. Because what they’re doing is they’re empathizing both in real time with what the character’s going through, and also before, during rehearsals, they’re constantly trying to understand what it is that this character, this writer has written, is really trying to do because the words don’t really tell you enough.

You have to have gestures. You have to have facial expressions. All these other nuances have to be coincided with the words for it to really work as a remarkable piece of artwork that moves the audience and gets them to think about things differently. It wasn’t until I took that acting class that the word empathy entered into my equation.

Slim’s model talks about framing the act of making not as an act of innovation, but as an act of empathizing. The model suggests a new direction for design. It might be quite leap, or is it?

Expectations: Along the same line In a podcast with Marc Stickdorn, co-author of This is Service Design Thinking, I asked my typical “last question” in a podcast and it went like this:

Joe: Is there something that I didn’t ask that you would like to expand on or mention about service design thinking?

Marc: Maybe I would like to add one thing and that’s about expectations. We talked a lot about experiences now and one really; really important thing is the expectations. If you’re thinking about what advertisements do and communications if you go online and read reviews about said product and so forth it’s all affecting expectations. That is something really, really important.

If you’re thinking what satisfaction is, customer satisfaction, it really depends on the expectation. You level your expectations against your experiences. That’s what still many companies don’t really get to level their expectation that right manner. Expectation management is one thing which needs to be included in service design.

Joe: The expectation of what a customer should know and what an organization should do. Having that commonality really is what makes the product experience great. I think that’s a great point.

Marc: Definitely. That’s why low-cost carriers are working so good because they promise you nothing and at the end of the day you get from A to B and that’s all you want and that’s all they promise and that’s all they do. That’s why they work. They can have an awful customer experience but if they don’t promise anything else, fair enough.

If you promise to have an awesome customer experience and you just provide an average experience that’s something negative. That’s what I meant with a shift from advertising to experiences as well.

How many of us spend time on expectations? How many of us over promise and under deliver? We spend time on defining customer needs and how we can deliver on them but do we ever define his expectations? Most sales teachings employ techniques that are manipulative and tied to customer emotions. You try to guide them down a certain path. I have written about this before in Kill the Sales and Marketing Funnel where I said:

The Connection: I find expectations are closely rooted to empathy. You have to take interest in the customer’s well-being in able to assist them in defining the minimum level of performance needed and the amount of effort they are willing to put forth. The key is listening with empathy. Your persona is more important than the customers at this point. Before you begin teaching the customer what they need to know, start thinking of this process a little differently. Think of it as you being the pupil rather than the teacher. Think about you having that “aha” moment or that moment when you “get it” versus when your customer gets it. When that “Aha” moment arrives – delighting the customer may not be all that difficult.

A short excerpt and the table of contents from the book Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy that gives you an excellent overview of empathy (if you think that this is a recommendation for this book, it is):

Part I: The Case for Empathy

  1. Introduction: Companies prosper when they tap into a power that every one of us already has—the ability to reach outside of ourselves and connect with other people.
  2. The Map Is Not the Territory: Empathy is an antidote to a world of abstraction. Faced with a deluge of information, people like to boil things down. This puts them in danger of making poor decisions based on incomplete or distorted information.
  3. The Way Things Used to Be: Empathy isn’t a new phenomenon. There was a time not so long ago when there was a broad and deep connection between producers and consumers that allowed everyone to prosper.

Part II: Creating Widespread Empathy

  1. The Power of Affinity: The quickest way to have empathy for someone else is to be just like them. For companies, the answer is to hire their customers.
  2. Walking in Someone Else’s Shoes: It’s often not possible or not enough to hire your customers. To continue to grow and prosper, you have to step outside of yourself and walk in someone else’s shoes
  3. Empathy That Lasts: Bringing people face to face triggers a caring response. The emotionally charged memories of that experience can be a guiding light to stay true to the vision.
  4. Open All the Windows: While having empathy for other people is a good thing for us to do as individuals, it’s far more powerful when you can create widespread empathy throughout a large organization.

Part III: The Results of Empathy

  1. Reframe How You See the World: When you step outside of yourself, you open up to the possibility of seeing new opportunities for growth.
  2. We Are Them and They Are Us: When companies create an empathic connection to the rest of the world, a funny thing starts to happen. The line between outside and in, between producer and consumer, begins to blur.
  3. The Golden Rule: Consistent ethical behavior demands that you walk in other people’s shoes. Because of this, Widespread Empathy can be an effective way to ensure the morality of a large institution, more so than any rule book or code of conduct.
  4. The Hidden Payoff: Having empathy for others can do more than drive growth. It can also give people the one thing that too many of us lack: a reason to come in to work every day.

We’ve seen how empathy can be a driving force to develop more prosperous, more ethical, and more enduring companies. But it also has the power to help us see how we can change the world for the better. Ultimately, every single one of us is biologically wired to care. Scaling that ability to the level of an organization can transform its mission. When we develop real empathy for the people we serve, our jobs start to become callings. There are no low-interest problems—only problem-solvers who don’t have strong connections to the people they serve. Companies can serve a higher purpose than just making money. They can create wealth by enriching the wider society we all live in. Empathy can awaken us to the power that we have to change the course of everyday life. But only if we’re willing to step outside of our own preconceptions and see the world through other people’s eyes.

So how do you create empathy in your organization? Even though I may have come across a little anti-empathy about Lean above, I believe it is the best methodology, the best business model to achieve this. Design Thinking and Service Design in the short term are not business models. Using Service-Dominant Logic thinking and addressing the three components of value; Social, Emotional and Functional takes you a long way in your journey. But empathy is a personal trait. It is best to look for the quality in the beginning at the time of hire. I have discussed this before with companies like Zappos. From the book, High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service, they recommend hiring your team based on the WETCO psychological traits:

  1. Warmth: Simple human kindness
  2. Empathy: The ability to sense what another person is feeling.
  3. Teamwork: The bias against “I can do it all myself” and toward “Let’s work together to make this happen.
  4. Conscientiousness: Detail orientation, including an ability and willingness to follow through to completion.
  5. Optimism: The ability to bounce back and not internalize challenges.

In the PDCA section, you had attempted to improve a portion of your Personal Kanban. It may have been something as simple as taking out the garbage. You should have thought about some incremental improvement that facilitated the flow by removing waste. Now, we want to dramatically improve or with proper breakthrough thinking alter the way it is done. We want to make it so appealing that everyone in the family wants to do it. In the example of the garbage, you have to be the first one up if you want to do it. So appealing, that a teenage boy will set his alarm for it or even do it before he/she goes to bed. Maybe, a little farfetched but the availability of an iPhone comes close to this example.

Download an Empathy Map and complete one for a task that was listed on your Personal Kanban, Complete one for the group that you expect to use this service.

Personas: Many people at this stage will look at creating personas for the different groupings. For the sake of this program, we will only consider the use of Empathy map as a method of determining the groups’ persona. Personas typically include more research and the use of stakeholder maps, shadowing, interviews, etc. An excellent introduction into personas can be found on this blog post, 7 Core ideas about Personas and the User Experience.

Team Structure:

One of the key considerations in developing a team is to determine the objective of the cycle. Is it primarily problem resolution, creativity, or tactical execution? Team structure needs to be considered as well as the participants. You will find a variety of structures will work for you, but the typical model is one of a business team that has a team leader, and all others are on equal footing. Many times the team leader is really just a participant but has the administrative work as an added responsibility.

Think about the kind of team needed: Tactical execution(SDCA), Problem Resolution (PDCA), and Creativity (EDCA). Separate the sessions so people know which hat they are wearing when. Without this process, you may have creative teams working on tactical execution or on the other hand a problem-solving team working on a creative solution.

Once you’ve identified the team’s broadest objective—problem resolution, creativity, or tactical execution—then you set up a team structure that emphasizes the characteristic that is most important for that kind of team. For a problem-resolution team, you emphasize trust for a creativity team, autonomy, and for a tactical-execution team, clarity. Listed below is an outline identifying the team structures (adapted from Teamwork and the Rapid Development books):

Creativity Team:

  1. Objective: Explore possibilities and alternatives.
  2. Dominant Feature: Autonomy
  3. Sales Process Example: Creating a new advertising program
  4. Process emphasis: Explore possibilities and alternatives
  5. Lifecycle Models: Evolutionary prototyping, evolutionary delivery, staged delivery, spiral, design-to-schedule
  6. Team Members: Cerebral, independent thinkers, self-starters, tenacious
  7. Team Models: Business team, feature team, skunk-works team, theater team


Link to original article here.