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EMPATHY

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ONScaling
THE EDGE
and Sustaining

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a Human-Centred
Approach to Innovation
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No matter what industry you work in, remarkable things will happen
when empathy for your customers plays a key role in decision making.
By Katja Battarbee, Jane Fulton Suri and Suzanne Gibbs Howard
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IN TODAY’S GLOBAL companies are being asked to understanding of how they used radios. He returned to the studio
create innovative products and services for increasingly diverse a believer in the value of observing people and their context
users, cultures and environments. These ‘design challenges’ can as part of the design process.
be so systemic and wickedly complex that the task of aligning This approach — which co-founder Bill Moggridge lat-
all of a project’s stakeholders sometimes seems impossible. But er brought to IDEO — provided the early foundation for our hu-
it’s not. man-centred design practice. Since then, the scope of our work
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Design empathy is an approach that draws upon people’s re- — once focused primarily on product design — has expanded to
al-world experiences to address modern challenges. When com- include digital innovation, organizational strategy and global
panies allow a deep emotional understanding of user needs to business challenges. We have learned hand that tackling
inspire them — and transform their work, their teams, and even these issues as if they were design problems — even though they
the organization at large — they unlock the creative capacity for are outside the traditional realm of design — leads to outcomes
innovation. that are not only functional, but also emotionally meaningful for
In this article, we will explore how design empathy works, the people
its value to organizations, and some of the ways it can be used to A simple of empathy is ‘the ability to be aware of,
positive change. understanding of, and sensitive to another person’s feelings and
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thoughts’. As human-centred designers, we consciously work to


Design Empathy: An Introduction understand the experience of our clients and their customers,
Back in the 1970s, a young industrial designer named John Stod- and these insights inform and inspire our work. IDEO CEO Tim
dard joined Moggridge Associates in London. His assign- Brown has described design empathy as a mental habit, but it is
ment: to redesign marine radios. On his day, he was sent to also a fundamental cultural value that allows people to develop
the towns of Hull and Grimsby on England’s northeast- concepts, products, services, strategies and systems that are both
ern coast to meet with on their boats, to get a real innovative and responsive to actual user needs and desires.

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When a whole company expresses true empathy for its customers,
employees enjoy a sense of clarity and purpose.

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When empathic design first appeared in business litera- for most people. However, some of the qualities and behaviours
ture in the late 1990s, it was presented as a process that in- that can make a person successful in business can stand in the
volved observation, data collection and analysis, and iterative way of achieving empathy: people who cannot temporarily let go
prototyping. Most significantly, the discipline was identified of their role or status or set aside their own expertise or opinion
as a way to uncover people’s unspoken, latent needs, and then will fail to empathize with others who have conflicting thoughts,
address them through design. By responding to real, but unex- experiences, or mental models.
pressed and unmet needs, design empathy promised to bring Empathic design may also be hindered by an unsympathetic

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financial reward. culture within the broader organization. The stress of running a
Empathic design has proven useful in addressing increas- business can easily suppress a desire for empathy.Management
ingly large systemic challenges in domains such as education and may lose touch with what customers and users are experiencing
healthcare, as well as corporate and civic organizational change, as its attention gets drawn toward solving legal hurdles, react-
and this has inspired us to find ways to apply empathy in new ing to competitive pressures and overcoming technological ob-
contexts. Some of those contexts have arisen from shifts in how stacles.
people relate to one another and the world. Advances in informa- The good news is, it is possible to fuel empathy, or pivotal
tion and communication technologies alter how we work, play, ‘out of ego’ experiences, without a lot of effort. For example,
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learn, socialize and express ourselves. imagine being asked to come up with a long-term vision for a
Consumers’ relationships with — and expectations of — brand of toys. Perhaps you’ve conducted lots of market research,
companies are changing, as well. Companies worldwide are be- but the analyses don’t point you in any clear direction, nor con-
ing held increasingly accountable for their long-term social and nect you to the mindset of children. To kindle that sense of ex-
environmental impacts, and this is driving many to adopt new citement and inspiration, you could simply get on the floor for a
policies and practices around energy conservation, sourcing, play-along with youngsters in the target age range, or arrange a
production and sustainability. Products and services were never toy-hacking party at a local school.
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designed in a vacuum, but today, everything is more evidently Often, it is worth going the extra mile to develop emotional
connected as part of a larger ecosystem. resonance with the people you are designing for. We have had
Empathy is a powerful force. Research shows that when we teams do things like:
are empathetic, we enhance our ability to receive and process
information. Putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes — a part • Shadow sales representatives and bank tellers on the job to
of our subconscious behaviour — causes measurable changes in understand their needs and challenges;
our cognitive style, increasing ‘field-dependent thinking’. This • Sleep on rubber sheets overnight at an elder-care facility to
type of thinking helps us put information in context and pick up relate to spending one’s last months or years there; and
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contextual cues from the environment, which is essential when • Participate in gruelling endurance events to share athletes’
we’re seeking to understand how things relate to one another, lit- exhilaration and pain.
erally and figuratively. Empathy is also wonderfully contagious:
witnessing it can help others empathize, as well. However we choose to gain empathy, it can help us to focus,
It is important to point out that empathic design is not prioritize, and defend our design decisions — all of which is
about being emotional all of the time: it is about creating a bal- necessary in the ever-evolving realm of innovation.
ance between empathizing with an experience and analyzing
its nature and components; in short, thinking and feeling, rigor- Exhibit A: Danone
ously and deeply. Danone is a multinational business that makes dairy products,
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bottled water and other foods. In 1996, when the company part-
Putting Design Empathy Into Practice nered with the Grameen Foundation to open a yogurt manu-
Talking with a few fishermen to discover how they use your prod- facturing plant in the Bogra District of Bangladesh, no one knew
uct is no longer enough. Design empathy must expand to suppli- how significant the small social business — designed to benefit
ers, buyers and customers — the whole ecosystem of people and families — would become for everyone involved. Since then, the
businesses involved. partnership “has transformed Danone culturally,” says project
Having some degree of compassion for others isn’t difficult manager Marie Soubeiran.

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Photos: IDEO.
At first, the effort focused on technical challenges in manu-
facturing design, milk sourcing and formulation. Today, the plant
operates on a community scale, using local milk to make a special Clients join designers on a road trip to actively experience
nutrient-rich yogurt to help supplement Bangladeshi children’s aspects of California’s car culture first-hand.
dietary deficiencies.
Employees throughout the company take pride in the com-
pany’s positive impact on peoples’ lives, hanging pictures of the PROGRESSIVE DISCOVERY. It can be difficult to empathize with

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villagers in offices throughout Danone, Soubeiran says. The com- people whose culture and values are fundamentally different. In
pany’s empathy for the consumers of its product — evident in its these situations, we need to craft a progressive journey of empathy
focus on their actual needs and its desire to empower them to and learning. In one case, an American company asked us to con-
help themselves — gives Danone a sense of purpose and direc- duct research on urban Chinese women’s attitudes about contra-
tion, and spurs innovation elsewhere in the organization. Best ception. When our designers realized the extreme differences in
of all, creative solutions developed at the factory (such as using Chinese and American cultural attitudes, they knew they’d need
enzymes to keep unrefrigerated milk fresh longer) have huge po- more than a slide presentation to help the clients understand
tential in other markets. their target market. Our solution was a four-day journey of pro-
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Danone’s experience echoes a phenomenon we are begin- gressive discovery and empathy building.
ning to see across industries. When a whole company expresses On the first day, we shared four typical consumer profiles
true empathy for its customers, employees enjoy a sense of clar- with a large group of clients, who then observed our interviews
ity and purpose — and they do better work. As designers, we with four women and, through an interpreter, listened to their
find that empathy helps businesses create and measure success surprising reactions to products and concepts. Afterward, the
in new ways. After all, the broadest definition of design is that it clients struggled to understand how profoundly taboo sex is in
transforms current situations into preferred ones. When these China and how the culture affects women and their birth control
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preferred situations align with the goals of multiple stakehold- choices. On the second and third days, we took the clients to in-
ers, everyone benefits. This is the promise of human-centred and terview abortion doctors at hospitals, to speak with pharmacists,
empathic design. and even to visit a Shanghai ‘love hotel’ that rents rooms in three-
hour increments. By the fourth day, the clients were ready to ac-
Scaling and Sustaining Empathy cept the realities of a society in which cultural norms are stacked
As we see with Danone, to be most effective, empathy cannot against prophylactic pills—and begin to rethink the design of
remain the privilege of an individual, a design team, or even a their offering accordingly.
tight group of highly involved stakeholders. Nor can it endure
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only for the course of a project. If design empathy is to sustain ANALOGOUS EXPERIENCES. When it isn’t feasible to bring clients
impact throughout an organization, it needs ongoing support face-to-face with users in context, you can create analogous
from the over-arching culture. An empathic attitude needs to be experiences to foster empathy. IDEO sometimes puts clients
championed, nurtured and practiced regularly. People within through carefully crafted ‘feels like’ situations to help them draw
the organization must learn how to tell stories from an empathic parallels between their own experiences and those of their cus-
point of view and to seek empathy whenever they see it miss- tomers. Designing analogous experiences often gives us more
ing. Encouraging this kind of inclusive championship requires latitude and makes it easier to involve larger groups in the de-
addressing two related challenges: scaling empathy and sus- sign empathy process, without sacrificing any of the emotional
taining it. impact more traditional observations would provide. In fact,
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because they tend to require some effort on the clients’ part to


1. Scaling Design Empathy engage, analogous experiences can have even more transforma-
In complex systemic challenges, a multitude of actors exist (us- tive power than the passive observation of users’ actual activities.
ers or others) whose roles, needs, attitudes, abilities and expec- For example, IDEO worked with a hospital to improve
tations influence the design requirements in some crucial way. its patient experience. Our client was immersed in patients’
Here, we share some of our approaches to engaging these actors day-in, day-out activities, but they found it difficult to reflect on
to scale empathy. how patients truly felt.

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A designer gets his chest waxed
to empathize with wound-care patients.

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To help foster empathy, we designed an analogous experi- not always easy, but the experience gave the organization a sense
ence. We had noticed that there was no boundary between ‘pub- of empathy that motivated everyone to work on smaller issues as
lic access’ and ‘backstage’ at the hospital. If the facility were a well as big ones.
restaurant, it would be as if diners ate in the kitchen amongst the
chefs. We simulated this analogy and invited the clients to din- 2. Sustaining Design Empathy
ner. Actors played the parts of waiters, who treated our guests in When a whole company is trying to alter its course to become
an incomprehensibly brisk manner. Diners were required to wear more human-centred and empathic, it’s not enough for one team
unflattering bibs. Unexplained dishes came and went. There was to have a transformative experience in the field. Simply present-
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a lot of waiting with no explanation. ing insights to a larger group rarely accomplishes the job, either.
The extreme nature of this analogous scenario was risky — All of the stakeholders involved need to be intrinsically moti-
not all participants appreciated the experience at first. But a de- vated if they are going to truly follow through with their commit-
briefing conversation followed, and later the experiment proved ment to human-centred design and innovation.
remarkably successful: the hospital workers who took part now Following are some of our approaches for sustaining empa-
actively seek ways to measurably improve the patient experience. thy in an organization.
Their first success was to speed up the process of discharging pa-
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tients to the point where nearly 50 per cent were able to leave be- TELLING STORIES, DOCUMENTARY-STYLE. In an effort to cultivate
fore noon, exceeding the hospital’s goal of 30 per cent. empathy for customers within a global organization of 30,000
people, IDEO distilled its research findings into ‘mini documen-
LONG-TERM IMMERSION. For another project, we needed to ensure taries’ that everyone could watch. We also developed iPhone,
that a pharmaceutical company was truly empathetic to the cu- Web and tablet software apps that further brought the customer
mulative effect of small inconveniences of its injectable therapy. insights to life. Soon after the launch, employees worldwide were
When larger problems seem far more critical, it’s easy to overlook viewing the videos and accompanying data. It’s too early to tell
little problems in the development context. To provide a counter- what this project’s long-term impact will be, but it has already
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balance, our designers planned a month-long immersive experi- been valuable as an experiment in deepening customer-centred-
ence for 35 members of the client organization to understand the ness and empathy.
pain points of a weekly injectable drug. We’ve found ourselves blurring the boundary between con-
Each participant took home four prototypes with instruc- ducting design research and casting for a documentary before.
tions, as well as the profile of a patient whose role he or she had to A few years ago, when we were working with the National Cam-
assume during the experiment. All participants had to store their paign to Prevent Teen and Adult Unplanned Pregnancy, we de-
prototypes in their refrigerator, give themselves mock injections signed Bedsider.org, a public website that helps young adults to
once a week, and document their experiences. Every week, they find a birth-control method that works for them. Among other
were presented with challenges of the everyday mishap variety resources, the site shares first-person accounts of young women
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— spilled juice, last-minute trip via airplane, and so forth — for making decisions about contraceptives.
which they had to find a way to cope. Our research showed that women could empathize more
At the end of the month, the clients were surprised by how easily with one another than with, say, an authority figure. A
much they’d learned from the exercise. This yielded ideas for slightly cheeky tone was the most effective. So, we shot videos of
improving dozens of aspects of the patient experience, from them talking about their own birth-control experiences, as they
product packaging and instructions to customer support. Con- would to a friend, and designed the site to have that same frank
vincing such a large group to go through such an inconvenience is but light-hearted feel.

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Permissions@hbsp.harvard.edu or 617.783.7860
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to foster empathy. For example, a European telecom asked us to
help it develop a customer-centred strategy for its tariffs. As de-
signers started to explore the customer experience, they quickly
found themselves buried in information.
At first, the designers struggled to effectively communicate
the burden of this experience to the company. Ultimately, they
came up with a powerful physical way to relay the tension of the
customer experience: the team designed and built an ‘experience
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exhibition’ in an IDEO office space. They took the clients on a
multi-sensory journey, including a literal ‘tunnel’ of paperwork,
To understand more about how villagers make choices while
shopping, the design team selected this range of products to which dramatized the customer experience of trying to deal with
display for sale at a village market in Ghana. the avalanche of baffling documents and contracts. Their under-
standing became visceral and, inspired by the exercise, the cli-
ents went on to build a similar setup within their training facility.
They have since walked more than 3,000 employees through it to
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help engender empathy for their customers.

EMBED STORIES IN DATA. Although we put empathy and qualitative In closing


stories first in our work, we increasingly use quantitative data to Given the increasing complexity of today’s world and its related
provide context for our insights. Behaviour observed once in a design challenges, the empathy we engender needs to embrace a
small sample might be shrugged off as an anomaly or a quirk, or broader spectrum of stakeholders and endure beyond the time-
conversely, could capture a team’s imagination and be given too frame of a project or traditional deliverables.
much weight. Cultivating a culture of empathy and extending it to far-
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For example, on one project regarding the use of digital reaching stakeholders requires more than the usual effort from
media tools, a young woman who kept track of her multiple re- everyone involved. Yes, it’s hard to scale empathy to large, di-
sponsibilities by using a collection of different smart devices ini- verse groups. And, yes, it’s difficult to sustain empathy through-
tially appeared to be unique; however, the quantitative side of the out a corporate culture over time. But we have found that the
study showed us that she actually exemplified an entire segment effort truly pays off for individuals and organizations alike.
of early adopters.
Embracing a ‘hybrid approach’ enables you to merge the
best aspects of qualitative and quantitative research: the qualita-
tive research uncovers the real human stories and experiences,
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and the quantitative research considers the market context and


potential impact. We then embed stories into data and cross-
validate emotional insights with numbers to arrive at a stronger, Katja Battarbee is a Senior
human-centred point of view. Design Researcher at IDEO
with a PhD in user experience
research. Jane Fulton Suri is
TAKE CLIENTS ON ‘VISCERAL JOURNEYS’. Businesses that do not start a Partner and Chief Creative
off with an empathic environment can find simple ways to begin Officer at IDEO. Suzanne Gibbs Howard is an Executive Director at IDEO.

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Permissions@hbsp.harvard.edu or 617.783.7860