Driving Innovative Strategy through Empathetic Observation


ObservingDeveloping great strategy that produces a sustainable competitive advantage comes from one of two methods.  One – you can study your competitors closely, try to figure out what their game plan is, and then decide how to beat them. Or, two – you can understand your customers better than anyone else; looking for insights about unmet needs and then satisfy them more fully than anyone else.

When we discuss the second approach the obvious question is “how do we come to understand our customers?”   For those of us who were students of engineering, the sciences, and possibly business, the first idea seems to be to collect data.  Yes, we love data.   We think about doing surveys that produce data which we can analyze, parse, cross reference, and review – with statistical precision.

Data Doesn’t Always Do It.

I am an engineer by training and I love numbers more than most but often times, the data does not yield insights that enable breakthrough innovation.  Surveys themselves are helpful only when you are insightful enough to ask the right questions.   In addition, how each is worded can also impact the responses. The ability to craft meaningful surveys when you yourself do not have a deep understanding of the consumer behavior of interest is rare.

Numerical data is one-dimensional and sterile.   It can reveal information about preferences, but without insight about what consumer motivations lie beneath.  It is often the subtext that triggers insights that produce game-changing new product ideas.

A third problem with data is that it comes from looking backwards in time.   While data on what has been happening can be interesting, there is no guarantee that the future can be divined by merely extrapolating past trends.  In a dynamic world, the past is not always a good predictor of what’s next.

A fourth problem is that data does not reveal root cause.   You could study various data sets and find a positive correlation between housing starts and bicycle sales, for example.   The fact that these two sets of data move together does not mean that one causes the other.  Understanding causality is pretty important.

Focus Groups Don’t Always Do It.

Many of the scientific and engineering people I know are cynical about wasting time to ask customers what they would like.   “They don’t really know themselves”, an R&D executive once told me.    This is true.   If you asked people 15 years ago how they would like to access and share information, it is unlikely they would describe a smart phone as it exists today. Their ability to describe new products and services is related to their life experiences, knowledge of what is possible, and their ability to imagine the unknown.  Now, if you showed them a prototype, they could probably give you some useful feedback on likes and dislikes, but if your goal is breakthrough innovation, this avenue does not seem productive either.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for data, and data collection and review should be a PART of your research strategy.  But we need more.

The Art of Empathetic Observation.

The idea of observing consumers (up close) as they shop for, buy, and use your product or service can yield new understanding that can complete the picture data alone cannot paint.   Observations can yield information that cannot be obtained by other means.   When the makers of Cheerios observed moms they saw that many were using the cereal in unintended ways – packed in baggies and doled out one at a time when an infant needed a snack or distraction.

A maker of a leading cooking spray found some consumers using their product to coat the underside of their lawnmowers to reduce the buildup of wet grass (another completely new market for them).

Sometimes we can learn things in more empathetic ways.  We can listen to the tone of voice, look at body language and  notice facial expressions that allow us to “read between the lines” when speaking with customers.  In this manner we can often infer subtle things about their motivations and buying behaviors.

As described in my recent article Innovating a Mature Product – the Sealy Case, these people saw things by talking with and observing people shopping for mattresses that surprised them.  How the product looked and felt in the showroom really mattered (which was counterintuitive to them because their product was neither seen nor felt when in use).   They saw that there was a certain category of buyers for whom a mattress was a major investment in their health, productivity, and well-being.  They recognized that the mattress was, in a sense, a reflection of their personality. So the Sealy people concluded they needed to give their product a suitable personality to match.  This, they did, actually raising product costs by 25% and the selling price by 40% resulting in two consecutive quarters of record sales!

The graphic below, called an Empathy Map, is a tool you can use in your own field research efforts.

Empathy MapStart by designing your field immersion learning experience.  Think about whether to do an interview, observation, field trip, etc. and create a field interview/observation guide.    (You can contact the writer for examples).  Select your research team (eclectic and diverse is best).   Send them out into the field and tell them that the end product of their effort is the creation of an empathy map (using the template above.)

It has several sections – as outlined below.

1. See

What issues and problems surround them? What are market and environmental factors that seem to be most influential?

2. Think and Feel

What are their guiding thoughts and beliefs?  (Things they never overtly expressed, but you inferred using your empathetic observation skills)  Whose opinions might be influencing them, too? What emotions might have the greatest impact? View Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions.

3. Say and Do

Who do they say when they are in public? What are their attitudes and actions?  What are they saying to others?

4. Hear

What are they hearing from other people? The most prevalent thoughts and opinions surrounding them by friends, co-workers, family, and the communications channels (like social media, broadcast, etc.) that are they plugged into?  (The things they hear that are most likely influencing what they are thinking)

5. Pain

What are their frustrations, dislikes or concerns?  What compels them to action, or what stops them from taking action?  What problems do they have that you might help solve?

6. Gain (Wants and Needs)

What are their aspirations and motivations? What benefits do they gain if you can better serve their needs and solve their problems?) What do they really want to achieve?

When this field work is completed, then your researchers can bring these Empathy Maps back stimulate discussion and ideation.    I will offer more about this topic in future articles.  In the meantime, try this tool (or play the Innovation Game referenced below).   See what you might learn.

Other Resources:

Spark Innovation Through Empathic Design, by Dorothy Leonard and Jeffrey F. Rayport, Harvard Business Review

Challenges of Doing Empathic Design: Experiences from Industry, by Carolien E. Postma, Elly Zwartkruis-Pelgrim, Elke Daemen, and Jia Du, International Journal of Design. (Note particularly the “Baby Care Project” case example)

Empathy Map – Goal: Understand What Your Stakeholders Want from Your Business, from Innovation Games

 

Using Empathy Maps, by Bryann Alexandros, from Skylance.org

 

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5 Comments

Filed under Innovation, Strategy

5 responses to “Driving Innovative Strategy through Empathetic Observation

  1. Len, I am so happy I found your blog, as usual very interested piece of information, you are absolutely right about research – it’s an art to ask insightful questions, otherwise shit in – shit out) At Tina Seelig Creativity Course we had only an observation checklist, an empathy map is great tool to visualize your findings,

  2. Great insight. I found myself nodding along regarding the points about data and focus groups. What’s interesting is that I was -just- writing about focus groups a few days ago, too.

    Focus groups might be good for merely incremental improvements for some product or service that already exists, but if we seek breakthrough innovation, then you’re right: focus groups won’t cut it.

    Pitching radical but potentially innovative ideas to a focus group might elicit a few sidelong stares. Not everyone can readily embrace new ideas especially if they haven’t even experienced it yet. Some may shoot the ideas down simply because they’re new and full of uncertainty.

    Also, thanks for linking to my post about empathy maps. Highly appreciated!

  3. Pingback: Converting Empathetic Observations Into Solutions | lenbrzozowski

  4. Pingback: Project Management: Are we Solving the Right Problems? | lenbrzozowski

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