Research & Design Strategy

The business of empathy: Designing like your customers are human

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.

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