Tap into the power of empathy to help you solve problems and innovate.
In recent times, “empathy” has gotten a bad rap. Last summer, when President Obama appointed Sonia Sotomayor as his Supreme Court Justice nominee, he praised the veteran judge for showing empathy in her rulings—and unwittingly touched off a firestorm. At Sotomayor’s subsequent confirmation hearing, critics suggested that any justice who might be swayed by compassion and a firsthand understanding of people’s needs and problems could not be relied upon to make tough decisions and resolve difficult issues.
But many of the world’s top designers take a very different view of empathy: Far from seeing it as a soft spot or sign of weakness, they know it can be the key to solving tough problems and generating new ideas. Empathy can help companies outsmart the competition. It can also help people find ways to improve the world around them.
As I discovered while researching Glimmer, today’s top design firms all employ experts in psychology and ethnography, for purposes of studying people and their everyday needs. One of the pioneers in bringing greater empathy to the design world was Jane Fulton Suri of IDEO, who is featured in the book. There’s a fascinating story about how Fulton Suri got into design: She was a trained psychologist, enlisted by the British government in the early 1980s to help figure out why, at the time, there was a sudden wave of incidents involving people accidentally cutting off their own toes with a new type of lawn mower. Fulton Suri used empathic research to learn what was wrong with the machines and why people were misusing them. Which in turn led to improvements in the design of the next generation of mowers (and also led to Fulton Suri being hired by a top design firm).
You don’t have to be a trained psychologist to make use of empathy. As Fulton Suri notes, the key is simply to spend more time with more people, observing how they live and trying to figure out what they need. This can inspire ideas about how to fill those needs, which can lead to business opportunities.
Asking people questions can help—though designers insist that often, watching and listening is more important than questioning. People are more apt to show you what they need than tell you. And if you can actually physically put yourself in someone’s place as you observe, you gain a perspective that can trigger problem-solving ideas. For example, when IDEO began working on hospital room redesigns, the firm’s designers spent time flat on their backs in hospital beds, in order to see things from the patient viewpoint (what they saw mostly was the ceiling, of course—which led them to recommend to their hospital clients that the ceilings be decorated and used to post information for patients). Similarly, when asked to help in designing furniture for young children, one IDEO designer followed kids though their play days and, upon observing that they liked to huddle under tables, got down under the table himself—whereupon he came up with a best-selling idea for a storage device that attached under tables and allowed kids to stash toys there.
The importance of empathy in business can be immense.
Patrick Whitney, who runs The Institute of Design in Chicago, recently told me, “What I’m hearing from top Fortune 500 executives is that they know how to make just about anything—but they don’t know what to make.” Whitney maintains that companies must gain a deeper understanding of how people are actually living today in order to be able to close what he calls “the innovation gap”—the growing chasm between a company’s ability to make stuff and its understanding of what people actually need.
To make this happen, people who work at companies must get out of the office more, design experts say. After spending time observing people, they should bring that outside learning back and share it—plaster the walls with pictures of potential customers, along with artifacts and stories of how they live. “Create an office that looks like a shrine to the people the company serves,” the designer Dev Patnaik says. (OXO does this by having employees collect lost gloves from around the world, which are then displayed on a wall at the company’s New York headquarters—to serve as a constant visual reminder of all the different hands that the company’s products need to accommodate.) It’s also a good idea for managers stay in touch with customers by taking rotations on frontline jobs.
Empathy can also be a tool used for innovation outside the workplace, too. In your community, volunteer work provides a great opportunity to observe local needs that might need filling. Meanwhile, just having a keen eye open around the house can help you spot opportunities to innovate and improve. The best-selling OXO potato peeler came about because a husband noticed that his arthritic wife was having trouble using a conventional metal peeler. And the ClearRx medicine bottles now used at Target stores originated when a young woman observed the mix-ups her grandparents were having with conventional pill bottles in their medicine cabinet. So many times, the best ideas don’t come from thinktanks or lab research; they’re inspired by someone watching, listening—and empathizing.
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