The business of empathy: Designing like your customers are… | Delve
Design Concepts is now Delve. Learn more about our new brand. →
Research & Design Strategy

The business of empathy: Designing like your customers are human

December 01, 2018

If you are innovating by practicing customer-centered design, it may be the reason you aren’t getting the results you need.

When your innovation and new product design (NPD) inputs are focused on the customer, it’s likely your data set may be well informed, but not well inspired. And successful innovation needs to be rooted in human inspiration.

With a customer-centered process, the focus is inherently on the value exchange or monetary transaction, which then becomes your staff’s mindset. It’s the kind of mindset that focuses on narrow opportunities, optimization, and incremental improvements to improve operational workflow and your bottom line.

To design breakthrough products and win in the marketplace, a customer focus may be the thing holding you back. It can keep you and your organization from seeing the forest from the trees, especially in meeting longer-term goals and aggressive growth targets. If you are chasing down the needs and pain points related to the value exchange, you miss the larger context of human perceptions, motivations, and the broader influence of people’s lives. You’re developing empathy, but only in the narrow view of the monetary exchange.

Human-centered design offers your organization the opportunity to build a corporate mindset that can yield different, and better, results. When your business is structured around a human-centered design process, it enables and fosters an open and expansive mindset that includes a customer’s life. It allows you to keep the context of what those people care about in balance with their role as your customer and the value exchange. This kind of mindset allows you to inspire and identify bigger opportunities for your bottom line with offerings that provide more meaningful impact and higher value in the marketplace.

There are four key components to successfully implementing human-centered design within an organization:

1. Purpose

Organizations can focus on the bottom line and still de-risk the future by planning for and operating in three areas. McKinsey & Company’s Three Horizons of Growth suggest how companies can manage their portfolios over time. The way your organization addresses these horizons includes different business constraints and therefore, you can purposefully apply a human-centered approach in different ways to each. While Horizon 2 has the most obvious contribution toward human-centered design, Horizons 1 and 3 can be significant opportunities and including them can increase synergy potential for meaningful impact.

Horizon 1 is focused on maintaining and defending your on-market offering. It requires operational excellence, so you may be excelling here already. Sales staff, while not actively designing, should be human centered in their approach to relationships and providing services. The opportunity here is with developers and engineers who are likely optimizing and fixing on-market products. They are seldom provided opportunity to be human centered since they are focused on incremental improvements that provide the greatest profits, cash flow, helping improve performance, and maximizing the remaining value for each of your businesses.

To amp up human-centered design in Horizon 1, consider providing these employees with opportunities to: 1) participate in field research with your customers to experience and empathize with their human side and 2) rotate Horizon 1 NPD positions with Horizon 2 NPD positions so they gain experience with quantifiable responsibilities of applying human-centered design to their work. Finally, make sure your design staff has visibility to these projects, so they can spot opportunities to integrate human-centered design when they may have been overlooked.

In Horizon 2, companies nurture emerging business opportunities and have a willingness for considerable investments in rising entrepreneurial ventures likely to generate substantial profits. It is where creative business teams and NPD teams are focused on bigger innovations and human-centered value. This horizon can serve as the wheelhouse stage for practitioners to practice human-centered design. Human-centered design in this horizon requires iterative in-field research to inform and inspire design and ongoing design decisions. Leverage this horizon to serve as a training ground for your human-centered mindset. In Horizon 3, businesses search for and foster ideas for profitable growth farther into the future, considering small ventures like research projects, pilot programs, and minority stakes in new businesses. In this horizon, it is important to balance business tools with empathy building tools to match viable opportunities with meaningful and desirable opportunities for people. The human-centered opportunity here is building in discovery research to uncover meaningful insights and providing design the opportunity to inspire strategic opportunities. Human-centered design in this horizon is a catalyst. It delivers design strategy, serving up a reason to believe and acting as a sort of incubator for human-centered design opportunities.

2. Process

Whether your company uses a Stage Gate or an Agile NPD process, design must be an integral part the process. That means planning in time for iterative design, prototyping and testing with users. It also is very important to be clear about the differences between market research and design research, a common failure mode.

To design breakthrough products and win in the marketplace, a customer focus may be the thing holding you back.

In a stage gate or waterfall-type process, it would be easy to skip the step of building empathy to identify user needs and inspire your creative staff in context. Likewise, some level of design iteration is often accounted for. However, expecting multiple touch points for user feedback to inform design decisions is often not. These steps are often compressed or skipped, so be intentional to include them as part of the planned process. This sets the stage for enabling human-centered design. Include creative / design staff in project definition so they have the chance to get firsthand inspiration and help define requirements.

Alternatively, Agile is an excellent process for updating or maintaining an existing product, especially for software. For new products, build in time for discovery, design, and, if applicable, user testing activities ahead of each development sprint. This helps the combined team build empathy for users and make human-centered recommendations. The development team can also react to new discoveries and re-prioritize their backlog as needed to keep each sprint focused on delivering value.

3. Practice

Human-centered design can be practiced using various tools and approaches but establishing a corporate-wide methodology will set you up for success. Someone must own this methodology and it needs to be socialized, demonstrated, taught, and practiced so it can become well established. The methodology can be customized to your organization and processes but should be based in well-established design practices such as Design ThinkingLean Startup, and Google Venture’s Sprint. Additionally, there should be a way to track progress of your organization in using this human-centered design methodology.

4. Practitioners

Staff up your experienced and degreed design practitioners. Design experts are needed to champion and challenge the rest of an organization’s staff with best practices, asking the right questions, and staying laser focused on human-centered design. While everyone can and should participate in the human-centered design process, without designers and design researchers, the process lacks some very key elements.

Designers bring a natural curiosity to the table and will ask questions and come up with ideas more often and more quickly by nature. They will be the ones in the room to visualize throughout the day and encourage others to visualize ideas, workflows, features, and processes. Significant visualization, not just Post Its, enables alignment, synergy, and efficiency. Finally, honed design skills allow the creation of better solutions and execution.

Design researchers, very different from market researchers, know how to uncover user insights in a way that is most meaningful for informing design decisions. They are trained to uncover what design teams need to learn and therefore suggesting the right methods, often quick and qualitative. They are also experts at analysis, uncovering insights, and then sharing them in the format that is most useful and actionable to designers, engineers, and developers.

So, if you have staff contributing to design continue and foster that. But staff up and add design and design research practitioners to the mix. Every strategic, innovation and NPD project should have a designer on the team. Figure out how many you will require and start hiring. You will see results quickly.

Opportunity to differentiate

Human-centered design offers your organization the opportunity to build a corporate mindset and culture that can yield different, better, and bigger results. It enables your company to understand the human side of your customers, so you can design meaningful products, services, and experiences and allows you to connect with them as a brand that cares. It develops evangelists for improving people’s lives, which will bleed over into your brand. It delivers value in the marketplace to users, differentiation, a competitive edge for you, and ultimately a sustainable edge to your bottom line. Teams and processes that aspire to be human centered are not enough.

Customer-centered design helps brands compete in the marketplace. Human-centered design is what drives brands to win. Which do you want to be?

Let’s talk about how we can help move your business forward.

Contact us today
to start a discussion.

Sketch of a phone