Buckle Up for Empathy

Loading the family into our Swagger Wagon (ok… minivan) I asked my oldest son to help my youngest son buckle his seat belt. I want to recognize as many “I can do it myself” statements as I can, but not when were in a hurry. That’s when I lean on the buckling-up experts to lend a guiding hand. My oldest quickly assesses what I asked him to accomplish, grabs the buckle, and promptly drives it home with the satisfying click that means “all safe and secure”. However in doing so, my oldest had pulled the strap across the face of my youngest.

But, as they say in the American South, bless his heart. He did precisely what I had asked. “Please help your brother buckle up.”

  • Task? buckle brother’s seat belt
  • Status? accomplished
  • Brother’s feelings? not in the scope for this mission

I say this not because I want to tell a cute story about how goal-driven my oldest can be sometimes, or about how my youngest has the resilience and facial elasticity to bounce back from this. I want to highlight that this is a trap we all fall into as innovators.

We listen to our clients, our customers, our primary personas because we’re good innovators. That’s what we do. However sometimes when the customer says “I want a product that does X”, we head right into the prototype factory and make Product X. And then we are flabbergasted when Product X fails to capture the market.

What we need is more empathy.

Empathy is all about understanding the customer’s worldview. We can gain a better understanding by observing the customer in the situation and taking note of what they say, think, do, and feel. Check out Stanford d.school’s empathy map for more detail.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” – Henry Ford (?)

We can not focus solely on the function of buckling or what the customer says they want. We must have empathy for the person in the seat and understand their potential pain points.
We can not focus solely on the function of buckling or what the customer says they want. We must have empathy for the person in the seat and understand their potential pain points.
Empathy keeps us from taking the customer at their word and let’s us get at the heart of the problem. Like the quote attributed to Henry Ford suggests, we don’t want to give them faster horses. We want to understand WHY customers say they need faster horses. What job is the horse doing and why does it need to happen faster? The more we drill down into the empathetic questioning, the more we can find the true cause of the problem and actual working solutions.

My oldest is a very caring person, but in this case he simply listened to what I said, and made that happen. He did not think “Why is dad asking me to buckle him in this time?” nor “What’s going on with my brother that I need to help?” He did not have to buckle innovatively. I wasn’t looking for a new way to secure my children in their car seats. However, with a little more empathy he would have noticed that an immediate solution was not going to be the most optimal.

It is not innovative to have a customer ask for a faster horse and just deliver a faster horse. What customers say is only one-fourth of the puzzle. In the Value Proposition Design framework, Innovation is when a customer asks for a faster horse, you dive into what jobs the horse was doing, what pain points the speed of the horse was causing, and what opportunities for gains existed in the current horse-driven model. Innovation is disrupting or challenging the flow of the current model with a solution that gets at the root of the pain felt by the customer. Delivering what a customer wants is not the job of the innovator. Our job is to find what they need.

Innovation ignites when empathy is your spark.

Challenge

  • What does your customer say they want?
  • Identify the pain points that are leading them to voice this need.
  • Find an opportunity to observe your customer and take notes.
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