Strategy – Power of Empathetic Design

When I was soliciting ideas for my next blog, I kept hearing things about design and its ramifications to a product user interface. To me the term design is above and beyond just the user interface of a product . I agree user interface is a key element but design has elements that go far and beyond just a simple user interface or intuitive product abilities.
Good products are designed with empathy or as I call it empathetic design. So what is empathetic design, new products and features only take off when people find useful things to do with the product or service. People who start with design in mind are not there to create new industry, they are there to create an experience that resonates close to their heart and the hearts of several other people (think about AirBnb.com). It is true that most design elements start with a frustration that an individual faces but is that problem faced by several other people. So the question is how to validate that problem? 
 As Eric Reis says in his book “Lean Startup“, you need to build something called as the minimum viable product “MVP”. Get the minimum viable product our there in the hands of people and observe what they do with your product and get validation. Empathetic design is about doing things that you can focus on and doing them well.  But when you focus on a particular feature or function you need to focus in the broader picture as well. Similar to what Tim Brown wrote in his book “Change by Design“, when Amtrak came to IDEO to design the high speed rail car, IDEO did not only focus on designing the rail car, they also focused on the entire experience of travel by train from the curb-side.  Now that is something (BTW even as I write this blog, in China they have a high speed train from Shanghai to Beijing that is faster than the acela service from Amtrak, but I bet you the curb side experience maybe significantly different between both)
As mentioned in prior paragraph focus on a few things and do them well but ask yourself these questions “are the few features that I am working on are they about to solve a problem worth solving ? and are people willing to buy your solution since the problem is pervasive?”. As I paraphrase what Larry Page said in his interview with Charlie Rose “Innovation is not innovation if it cannot sell” So to that effect empathetic design depends significantly on the premise of open value co-creation. (Apple is an exception, but their folks observe their target consumers a lot of which I proudly claim to be one)
One of the companies I admire is P&G from a value co-creation perspective. This is one company that has figured out a way to make decent margins on a commodity product “the detergent”. They find ways to sell detergent to their constituents in so many different and innovative ways (the other company that I admire is Coca-Cola, I mean sugared water really?). Going back to P&G, the company participates in many competitive industries which initially thrived on patents and proprietary technologies  etc. Now P&G openly courts innovations on their products via internet with their connect+develop program. The reason why P&G and the likes make decent margins, is because of their focus on the overall experience i.e. Some one wants to wash with Cold water there is Tide Cold etc. If there a defective box or a canister, the stores where their products are sold take the product back no questions asked (similar to what Amazon does with the overall experience). These are things that help people gravitate towards these products/services and continue to be repeat clients.  The net of what I am saying is that empathetic design is a profitable venture as long as you look at the experience and the overall utility of the product/solution.
If you observe carefully empathetically design products build on top of other ideas (in most cases existing ideas that are incomplete from an experience perspective). They usually simplify/ refine on the existing idea and in most cases it usually works. Think about it, was the iPod really a new kind of a mp3 player or was it that the iPod provided a way to carry all my music and listen to when I want or where I want. To complete the experience I have a legitimate way to download content for it as well. Now that is empathetic design at its best. 

The bottom line is empathetic design keeps the user in mind and whether you use cases in development or any other methodology in any other department it will be doomed to failure if all departments fail to have the same understanding of the problem the company is going to solve for the user.

(BTW All the companies I mentioned here are just to make a case, I am not endorsing that my experience is commonly shared, but if you look at their 10K, it proves my point. Your experiences may vary)
You can contact me @ kkanakas on twitter with your comments

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