I think that effective new product innovation is a result of empathizing with the customer. Traditional market research merely allows you to sympathize with them, and that often falls short. Let me explain. There is a key difference in these two words. When you sympathize with a person, you observe them as a third party and feel sorry that they are experiencing some degree of pain. However, when you empathize, you put yourself in their shoes to the point that you can actually feel their pain yourself.
Here’s an example. When you get survey feedback or review a focus group report you see prioritized data on what consumers think and feel. Sympathetic design would have you start at the top of the list and develop solutions for the top pains that have been identified. If something is “hard to hold”, then make it easier to hold. If it’s “too heavy”, then make it lighter weight. It seems very straight forward. Let’s contrast this with empathetic design. Instead of reading reports, you spend time face to face with your customer watching them interact with your product. You may still hear them say it’s “hard to hold”, but upon closer observation you come to realize that they’re not holding it as it was designed to be held. While the proper usage seems obvious to you (as the maker of the product), it is clearly not intuitive to the end user. The manner in which they hold it also makes the product feel much heavier than it ever should have. Instead of redesigning the product to make it “easier” and “lighter”, you focus on the overall design of the product to make it more obvious in terms of it’s intended usage. Suddenly the weight becomes a non-issue and the improved design can greatly increase consumer satisfaction.
Here’s another real-life example. We once worked with a client to develop a new line of outdoor, patio heaters. Over the course of the project, we learned (empathetically) that consumers often purchased these products for entertaining purposes, more than for personal comfort. In fact, during the validation phase, we observed that people considered our prototypes as serving the role of “outdoor decor” or “furniture” as much as the role of heater. There was a high degree of excitement toward the product and early versions won several design awards. The problem came when the company took the product to retail. Instead of using an empathetic argument when negotiating pricing, they fell back into their traditional sympathetic mindset (features and cost). The retail buyer said that the cost for these products was too high for a patio heater (and all existing market data would agree with this). In order to secure placement, the company cost reduced the product to hit the retail demands. The resulting product had a much “cheaper” feel to it which immediately took it out of the decor and furniture mode from the consumers’ perspective. A year later and this award-winning product was off the market. What had been envisioned was never actually realized.
Could an empathetic approach have saved this product? Even if you have an empathetic view of the consumer, how could you help others in the distribution chain share this vision?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one.