What does empathy have to do with innovation?

Gaia Grant
Andrew Grant

By and

written on November 14, 2017

How this human-centred connection will help you produce a superior product for your customers or clients.

Who would have thought that emotions would contribute to better innovation and business success? Yet that’s exactly what researchers have found; the best ideas and solutions come from better emotional connections.

Empathy is now pretty much universally recognised as an integral part of the innovation process and a foundation for creative development.

A prerequisite for solving “wicked problems”

The design thinking approach to innovation, as popularised by Stanford d.school and the global design firm IDEO, has developed the concept of empathy to make it inseparable from the process. Design thinking is a process widely used by businesses today to come up with new products and services. Leading innovative companies such as Apple and Google use design thinking on a day-to-day basis.

The process entails looking at a challenge that may appear to have no clear solution (known in design circles as a wicked problem), identifying the underlying issue, then trying to understand the different perspectives and needs related to this issue.

The designer will initially identify the desires and needs of the users and then use a prototyping process to develop products, systems and services that best meet these needs.

The outside-in approach

CEO and IDEO President Tim Brown says an outward-looking perspective and empathy are prerequisites for innovation. “A sense of inquiry, of curiosity, is essential for innovation, and the quickest way for removing curiosity in my opinion is to have organisations that are too inward-facing,” he says. “A sense of empathy for the world and for the people whose problems they might be trying to solve – that’s essential.”

Empathy provides the “human-centred” focus in design thinking. It’s the link between the person designing the new product or solution and the end user.

By starting with empathy, the designer can understand and relate to the issues the user faces and therefore create designs that best meet their needs.

Solving the shopping trolley challenge

As an example of how this can work in practice, let’s consider the challenge of shopping trolleys.

Have you ever noticed how difficult trolleys can be to negotiate around supermarket aisles, how items become wedged or buried deep in the basket, and how frustratingly long it can take to get through the checkout process?

IDEO was set the challenge of designing a new shopping cart. To deal with shoppers’ frustration at having to wrestle a full trolley up and down the aisles, IDEO designers came up with ideas for carts that are more like skeletons providing a frame for baskets to be slotted in and stacked to allow for collecting and searching for a few items at a time.

Hooks were added around the edges of the skeletal structure on which shoppers could hang plastic bags, and they then designed a cart concept with a scanner on the handle, so shoppers could do the scanning as they place the items in the basket rather than having to go through the whole process at the checkout.

Connect to create

Here are some tips to help you start emotionally connecting to achieve more creative and effective outcomes:

  • Identify the end user. Consider who will be using the product or service – you might like to develop personas or connect with actual potential users.
  •  Put yourself in the end user’s shoes. Use ethnographic research tools to help you identify the individual challenges and concerns of your end users. Observations, interviews, focus groups and empathy maps can all help to create a vivid picture of who the end user is and what they really need.
  • Involve the end user in the innovation process. Invite them to share in the brainstorming process, provide ideas and refinements for prototypes, test products and provide feedback on potential solutions.

An emotional connection through empathy can mean all the difference between the invention of a basic product and a powerful people-focused advance.

Gaia and Andrew Grant are the authors of “The Innovation Race: How to change a culture to change the game”. This article is an adapted excerpt from the book.

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