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The Art of Empathetic Observation


 

revealI just returned from delivering a talk at the Project Management Institute Spring Symposium in Michigan.  The main message I had for this group was while many organizations have ample skill in solving problems and managing projects effectively, the untapped opportunity comes from doing a better job in selecting the right problem to solve.   Most problems are fuzzy, having many facets to them.  In today’s world where we value speed, efficiency, and cost minimization we can too often rush to solving problems without taking time to amply understand them, and their various root causes.

Sometimes slowing down, being more exploratory, and striving for deeper understanding before launching into problem solving can pay big dividends.

In the Creative Problem Solving Process (See Slowing Down to Move Fast), the first important aspect of understanding the problem better, called “problem formulation” is to collect facts and information, driving us to ask more questions and consider more aspects of the problem.

Some of this comes from doing research on Google, or collecting readily available historical data.  However data alone can often present a fairly limited view of the situation.  So, we always like to challenge organizations to add to their empirical data, intuitive information that comes from consumer observations and interviews.  David Kelly (founder of design firm IDEO) likes to call this process one of “empathetic observation”.

Many technical people immediately presume that we can’t learn from ordinary people who are not experts in the technologies related to our business.  One of the participants in my session this week quoted Henry Ford who once said:  “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”  Yes, it’s true that most people can’t imagine something they have never before seen or experienced.  (If you asked people 15 years ago how they wanted to communicate, it is doubtful they would have described an iPhone 5.)

HOW DOES EMPATHETIC OBSERVATION WORK?

So if we can’t ask consumers what they want from us, how do we gain the understanding we need to create breakthrough innovations?     The art of empathetic observation is a means to observe and listen to customers as they

–          Make their own purchase decisions

–          Use our products or services

It’s not so much about interrogation, more like looking over their shoulder while trying to imagine what they are thinking and feeling as they do.

I like to think about it as asking open-ended questions that cause them to talk about their lives in as personal a manner as they feel comfortable and then we have to do the “heavy lifting”.  We need to listen for the current and future possible intersection points between their lives and our products/services.   We are “tuning in” to the things that cause our interviewee joy, frustration, fear, or anger – looking for unmet needs that we imagine our organization might be able to do something about.

STARBUCKS CASE

Imagine the coffee retailer Starbucks, trying to solve the problem: “How Might We Better Grow Our Same-Store Sales?”  As you can imagine growing only by adding more brick and mortar is expensive, so if we could somehow increase traffic in our EXISTING stores, wouldn’t that be far less capital consuming?   We can increase store sales by growing traffic, or by getting people to spend more each time they come by.

So to explore this question we create 2-person interview teams (one to ask questions, and one to write and help observe) and we begin to interview current Starbucks customers asking them questions like:

–          Tell me about a typical week in your life.

–          What are some of the biggest challenges you are experiencing in your life right now?

–          What are the things that you feel you need help with that would make the biggest difference for you?

–          What are the things that currently cause you to visit a Starbucks outlet?

–          When you do stop in, tell us what the experience is like for you.

–          Etc.

Notice that nowhere are we asking the consumer directly what they want Starbucks to create for them.  We are just getting them talking about their lives as we try to understand them better.

Empathy Map_StanfordWhen the interview is completed, our interview teams try to summarize the highlights of their conversation on a simple one-page template called an empathy map (see graphic at the left).    The map is divided into four sections: Quotes and Defining Words (3-5 bullet points of significant things the interviewee said); Actions and Behaviors (what they described that they did or how they behaved in their life), Thoughts and Beliefs (what we sensed they might have been thinking but never articulated to us during the interview); and Feelings and Emotions (what we imagine they might have been feeling when they were describing their life that they did not explicitly share).

Now the first two sections are relatively easy to create as they come from direct quotes we took from the interview.   But it is the last two quadrants that are most interesting since we are asking the interviewers to be amateur psychologists to go beneath the specific words and deeds to the underlying motivations.  This requires our empathy, plus a little instinct and intuition.

To give you a better idea of this concept in practice, here is an empathy map (see below) for one of our Starbucks Case interviewees, we will call “Alice”.   As you read the summary points on this map, you can begin to imagine how the actual interview went.   The interviewers in their summary seem to be “tuning in” to a host of issues related to Alice’s unmet need to meet new and different people in her life who might be a better influence on her.  You can sense that she may be looking for new people who can become personal friends, as well as professional contacts that might help her in her career.

Empaty Map_AliceWhen the interviewers presented their Empathy Map summary, they talked about how the sensed Alice was somewhat shy, and that “breaking the ice” with strangers was one of her challenges.

Now I imagine that two different sets of observers who witnessed the session with Alice might have summarized the interview differently.   That’s because we all observe and listen with different lenses based on our own personal biases and experiences.

But when we collect interview summaries from multiple groups and interviewees, a diverse array of observations start to emerge that can create a rich fodder for subsequent problem definition and idea creation steps in the Creative Problem Solving Process.

In a sense, each of the separate bullet points captured on the empathy map is a new problem to be solved for Alice.   To me this is an interesting example because this leads Starbucks to think not about another variety of beverage product, but to how they might engineer their store environments in new ways to help Alice and the other customers like her.

Effective brands make emotional connections with consumers who use them.  One way we can do this is by being relevant in the world of the people we serve, making a difference that really matters.   The empathy mapping example described here will help you and your colleagues go deeper in your understanding of the problems in front of them as you search for breakthrough innovation possibilities.

Other Resources

Converting Empathetic Observations Into Solutions, by Len Brzozowski, lenbrzozowski.wordpress.com

IDEO and The Art of Innovation: The Role of Listening in Consumer Product Development, from businesslistening.com

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

How to Use an Empathy Map, from Stanford’s d-School

Empathy Map, from Gamestorming: a playbook for innovators, rule-breakers and change makers

 

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Converting Empathetic Observations Into Solutions


IPODSIn my last article, Driving Innovative Strategy through Empathetic Observation, I introduced the Empathy Map as a technique to aid your team in conducting insight generating field immersion research.  It is intended to supplement the hard research you collect as a part of any planning process, and should promote a deeper understanding of your industry, business product, service or customer.

The goal of conducting Empathetic Observations is to enable you to go deeper into the motivations that drive customer behavior.  This helps you to ask better questions to identify the more important problems to solve.  This is the path to achieving breakthrough ideas.

Imagine Apple, a strictly computer company in 2000.  How did they transition from making Mac and Apple computers to the revolutionary iPOD?    At that time we mostly listened to our music on CD’s.   A number of companies–including Creative Labs, and Sony-had been selling MP3 players for a few years but none of them had been big hits.   So, in this case, Apple didn’t invent the concept, but it was about to revolutionize it, by understanding consumer attitudes and desires better than all the competitors at that time.

The Apple Team was somehow able to sense the possibility of the congruence of computers, the internet, and a lightweight (MP3-like) portable and personal device that could really change the game.  They did their own assessment of the market and consumer needs.   They recognized that the slow adoption of MP3 devices was partly due to price, partly due to its features, and partly due to the lack of an enabling infrastructure.

The 1999 Creative Labs Nomad had 32 MB of memory.  That’s enough for about 1 or 2 CDs and cost US$429.   In 2000, the digital music market was still pretty young and people were being pursued in court over the violation of copyright laws when they downloaded or copied “illegal” music.   There was no organized “store” from which you could download music.  Using MP3’s was cumbersome and risky. Yet Jobs and his team saw the possibility of delivering mass customized music on demand – listeners could hear what they wanted, anywhere, and at any time.

Apple spoke with consumers and thought about the problem holistically.   Their solution:

1)      Increased memory – the first iPOD could store about 1,000 songs

2)      Simpler operator interface  –  not buttons or hard to read dials, but a circular touch-sensitive element you could direct with the light touch of a finger

3)      Lower cost  –  the first iPOD cost $250 – about half of the Creative Labs version

4)      A convenient and legal platform for easily transferring music content to the device –  Apple’s APP store was created to offer this and it ultimately morphed into iTunes

5)      Easy integration to your PC  –  by downloading iTunes on your PC, you had now one simple way to organize, categorize and manage  your music collection, create customized playlists and to easily plug-in and download to your iPod

So now a holistic solution was present, and the iPOD took off, selling a quarter billion units in 7 or 8 years, leaving the competition in the dust.  It totally transformed how we all think about media.  WE are in control.  It led to the creation of “podcasting”, and is behind the trend of streaming video, TV programs, and books.

My hypothesis is that Apple’s competitors chose to see themselves as device makers – good at mass production.  They expected the retail sector to suck their products out the end of their supply chain as they had in the past.  The Apple team (under Steve Job’s direction) came to understand it needed to integrate all the above elements to satisfy consumers.

Using Your Empathy Map

The Empathy Maps your teams create are what lead to these insights – to more problems to solve that can bring about revolutionary change.  The “problem” for the tech industry was NOT how to make a better MP3 player.   Above I listed five major problems that ALL needed to be solved, and integrated together (price, memory, user interface, access to content, and integration.)   All five needed solutions for the revolution to take place.   While I’m not sure, it is plausible that the engineers at Creative Labs looked at the problem one dimensionally, like we need to lower cost, or we need bigger memory.  (Check out the link below suggesting that by as late as 2007, Creative’s designers still didn’t get the whole picture.)

So how do you go from the empathy maps to these innovative solutions?  Here are the steps.

1)      Have your teams share with the whole group their empathy maps and their main conclusions – 3-4 bullet points from each section of the Empathy Map

2)      Invite the assembled group to begin defining as many “problems” as possible by reading each of the bullet points and allowing your mind to run free.  Remember the Linus Pauling quote when he was asked how do you come up with a good idea?   “It helps”, he replied, “to begin with a lot of them!”    Write down these problems in the form of a “how might we” statement, such as “How Might We: make it easier for customers to transfer music to their device? Write each of these How Might We statements down on individual post it notes, and transfer them to a large board or wall.  Get as many ideas down as possible.

3)      Then group the ideas according to which ones seem to be related and put a heading on each grouping.   I am imagining in the iPOD case at least five main categories as outlined above:  price, memory, user interface, access to content, and integration.    Can you picture it?   5 labels with multiple post it notes grouped nearby.

4)      Assign teams to work within each problem area to generate ideas to solve these problems.

Some of you might argue that a process such as I am advocating may be too time consuming and requires too many resources pulled away from their day jobs.   If that is your impression, I would ask only “what is the cost of failing to do the kind of thorough analysis that leads to the holistic solution?”   Apple’s market share in the iPOD business was over 75% by 2007.   It enjoyed a zero share in 2000.  Those share points came from someone.

Other Resources:

How Apple Transformed Music and Our Lives, by Sam Costello, About.com

Creative Labs NOMAD MuVo² 4 GB MP3 Player–A Failed Attempt to Rival the IPod Mini, from Yahoo Tech

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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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