Innovation Always Starts With Empathy; Look at Zipcar and Even Apple

Why empathy is a creative company’s most powerful tool.

[This post is a rebuttal to one previously written by Jens Martin Skibsted and Rasmus Bech Hansen, "User-Led Innovation Can't Create Breakthroughs; Just Ask Apple and Ikea." ? Ed.]

User research has been a critical part of Ziba's design process for more than 25 years, and we're not alone. Long before the term User Centered Design (UCD) was coined in the 1980s, the world's smartest companies have relied on insights gained from their customers to innovate.

Recently, this proven practice has come under attack. In keynote talks at creative conferences and feature articles in business magazines, we're told that UCD is dead—that the key to great innovation is ignoring what users want, and instead boldly showing them the way. These messages are seductive. It's encouraging to tell ourselves that we, the innovators, know best, and Henry Ford was right to dismiss customers as folks who would simply ask for "a faster horse."

It's nice to tell ourselves that we, the innovators, know best.

There's a kernel of truth in this criticism, but experience and common sense tell us it is oversimplified and misleading. Even a brief survey of modern business makes it clear that the brash company that forges ahead, heedless of customer needs, is more likely to become irrelevant than revolutionize an industry (just think of American auto makers in the 1980s). Truly innovative companies pay constant attention to their customers. Deeply. Obsessively.

The world is full of innovations that came from users—not by asking them what they want, but by becoming them. The world's great design-driven companies don't have to ask customers what they want, because they already know.

Be the Target Market
Consider Zipcar. The world's leading car-sharing service got its start 11 years ago in a Cambridge, MA cafe, when Antje Danielson described a concept she had seen in Berlin to fellow businesswoman Robin Chase. Chase recognized the opportunity immediately, because she was its target user. In 2003, she explained to the New York Times that there was "a huge demand for the service if it was positioned correctly—I knew because I was the market."

The world is full of innovations that came from users.

It should be no surprise that Zipcar saw incredible growth over the next decade, and now enjoys the fervent support of more than 400,000 users. When the founder understands the needs of the target market inherently, they see potential innovations that are hidden to the less attuned. Even today, under a new CEO, Zipcar strives to keep its offices filled with staff who are also users and lists "be zipsters" as a key trait on the company's mission page.

Many of the world's most innovative companies benefit from this kind of institutional empathy. Steve Jobs isn't just a great businessman, he's also the prototypical Apple user, and he's assembled a team of smart, like-minded folks to bring his vision to life. It's no wonder Apple doesn't ask users what they want. They are the users.

If You Don't Have Empathy, Create It
Snowboarding giant Burton is able to innovate without focus groups because it couldn't possibly do otherwise. When every person on your team is steeped in sports and the outdoors, solving design problems becomes very personal. One of Ziba's creative directors worked for several years as a designer at Burton. He recalls how one day a senior designer walked in with a photo of a snowboarder's calf, covered in bruises from a long day on the slopes. "Fix this!" he demanded, and both of them immediately knew that this was a problem worth solving. They began to look for a solution. Empathy with the user is a powerful tool for innovation. It gives you insight into the problem, but even more important, it makes you care about the outcome.

Of course, not every company has this luxury. As markets grow and adapt, many businesses must focus their approach on the right market segment, who may have little in common with those in charge. In other cases, target users evolve and shift beneath the company. In both situations, user research is crucial.

Good user research is not a questionnaire that asks customers what they want. It's a tool for developing empathy. When Ziba investigates a specific user as part of a design project, the end result isn't a set of new products, it's an internal understanding of what that user is like: The challenges she faces each day, the things that excite and concern her, and her motivations and values. If you don't come out of a research effort feeling like a different person, you're doing it wrong.

Good Research Puts You in Your User's Shoes
The most innovative companies build this kind of empathy into their daily business. They know exactly who their customers are, they spend time talking with them, and they think long and hard about what they say. They walk the aisles of their own stores, as Costco CEO Jim Sinegal does every week, to feel what their customers feel.

If research doesn't make you feel like a different person, you're doing it wrong.

Without that level of empathy, Costco's most beloved innovations wouldn't exist. Their famous "14% rule" that limits the markup on every item they sell may not make immediate sense from a shareholder's perspective. But from the point of view of the shopper on the floor, it stands for value, transparency, and fairness—traits that make Costco shoppers some of North America's most loyal customers.

Internalizing the values of your users makes innovation easier, but getting there is hard. It is not the result of traditional market research, with its focus groups and quantitative studies. Empathy building demands that you live the life of your users and hear what they are saying, even if their interests and values are different from yours. Research efforts at Ziba have included playing basketball with college students in China, asking DJs in Berlin to show us their record collections, and doing laundry with Mumbai housewives. In each case, the goal is not to ask them what we should design, but to gain insight, absorb it, and translate it into a language our clients understand. Without that insight, any attempt at innovation is no better than a wild guess.

Intuition is Not Enough
It's tempting to look at a successful innovator and see a lone wolf, relying on intuition and instinct to create breakthroughs. But in the real world, the companies that get innovation right, again and again, are the ones that feel what their customers feel. That is true user-centered innovation, and it's available to anyone who makes empathy a top priority.

[Top image by Kevin Dooley]

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  • Jane Bromley

    Excellent article. This makes sense of so much that I have seen being really successful and indeed so much of what I have been driving forward for clients. Thank you for this extra layer of insight. Much appreciated. 

    Jane Bromley

  • Gregg Draudt

    Nice discussion fellows. I think you would all agree that, at the end of the day, what people say is only valuable when you can compare it to what they actually do. Capturing peoples actions unfiltered by their brains, and vocabulary is where the strongest insights lay.

  • moveforward

    Surely there's a diference between user-led innovation and merely asking users what they want.

    The article you referenced ("User-Led Innovation Can't Create Breakthroughs; Just Ask Apple and Ikea") expressed user-led innovation as 'asking users what they want', when to me (as others have also articulated) it's more about asking users what *problems* they face and then using design and research to provide solutions to the issues (and involving users in the process where appropriate).

    I find it hard to believe that Apple or Ikea would release even one product without having a fair idea of whether users will love or hate it - particlularly as they're in the business of creating physical products which incur heavy manufacturing, distribution and marketing costs.

    Empathy is a great word - and one that I think is avoided often in business because we're too proud or scared to dare ask our customers or users what they think and what they want.

  • Dennis J Schleicher Jr

    Good points Sohrab,

    Empathy is import - and as you wrote "... the goal is not to ask them what we should design, but to gain insight, absorb it, and translate it ...".

    Patrick Whitney talked last year about a project at Suruga Bank that relied on user empathy and how it couldn't have happened by just asking customers what they wanted.
    Media Tectonics & Design (Thinking)

    In terms of building empathy with research. It is harder than "observing" people. The problem is not just understanding but having ways of entering the world of envisioned users in their context. We need to engage at a different level of empathy and try learn in our bones the experience of another person experiencing the situation for which we are designing. P Jones, O Kachur and myself wrote on a way to do so in "Bodystorming as Embodied Designing.

    Looking forward to your next post!

  • Bernard Farrell

    Excellent article. I really wish more companies put on their users' shoes before pushing out poorly thought-up klunky designs. Why, for example, is black or silver the default color for terminals, PCs and TV screen? Any consumer would probably like choices that might better fit their decor.

  • Patrick Lang

    Now this is a perspective I can agree with...

    If the innovator personally experiences the pain point, then User Research is optional because they would be intimately involved with the problem. They also most likely would have spent many hours (or years) thinking about a possible solution. This is similar to the Zip Car example.

    Even having said that, user research can help mitigate financial risks by validating the pain point or solution. For entrepreneurs that have to convince the investment community of the validity of an idea, being able to present user research could help to confirm the solution. In the Small Enterprise, user research data can validate pain points/solutions, so that innovators in the company can feel confident when asking for additional resources.

    At the end of the day, innovators and designers have to want to solve problems that people (including ourselves) have. That means listening, learning, and being empathetic to the needs of others. Having spent over a year observing young urban hip hop artists, I think Ethnographic research and contextual inquiry provides the best opportunities to do that. It provided an emotional connection to the target audience that would be hard to come by using any other user research method.

  • Peter Lewis

    Fantastic article. Thoughtful, nuanced, and beautifully articulated. I had sensed something wasn't quite right with the previous article by Skibsted and Hansen, but you put it into words and persuasively presented a vision for what design empathy really means. Well done.

    With the Henry Ford example, I think what people often miss is that Ford didn't ignore the audience; he in fact paid more attention to them than they paid to themselves. He realized that their real need was not to have a horse, but to have a way to get from one place to another quickly and conveniently. And why should that be a horse? As he said, if he'd asked the users, they'd have asked for a better horse, because that's the only category they knew to solve their problem. Ford understood the underlying need, threw out the fundamental assumptions, and realized you could reframe the issue to solve the problem at a deeper level. I think that's what good designers do.

    On a side note, there's no reason why a car has to be the ultimate answer to personal transportation now, any more than a horse was the ultimate answer in the past. Maybe some designer will reframe the problem again and come up with something completely different.

  • Alejandro Rivas-Micoud

    Great article, fully agree, and the growing ubiquity of web cams will make it much easier for employees to gain that emotional connection to their users and customers, by observing them use their websites, products and services within the real world context of their homes and workplaces. Alejandro, CEO, Userlytics

  • Travis McCutcheon

    Excellent article. I am so tired of hearing that Henry Ford said, "If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse." The primary issue with this approach is asking customers for a solution rather than attempting to understand their problems. Customers knowledge of possibilites is limited. However, empathizing with their experiences allows creative companies to develop innovative solutions. My favorite example of this is Intuit's Quicken vs. Microsoft Money. In traditional Microsoft fashion they continued adding features driven by engineering. On the other hand Intuit's customer driven innovation allowed them to understand user needs and develop simple solutions. Guess which product is still on the market?

  • Anand Arumugam

    Awesome article. Wonderful counter argument to "User-Led Innovation Can't Create Breakthroughs; Just Ask Apple and Ikea.".

    This line captured me: "Good user research is not a questionnaire that asks customers what they want.". A good user research should be able to grasp the experience the user gets by using a product. Most of the times its hard to put them down in words. And you cannot grasp that feeling without you put yourself in their shoes and use the product. Or in your words have that "empathy".

    Looking forward to more insightful articles from you.

    Thank you.

  • Jim Moss

    I whole heartedly agree.

    I would posit that these references to "boldly showing the consumer where to go" (insert tongue in cheek) are rare and that a more in depth study would show that the largest number of these attempts fail. Sure there are some great success stories, but as is often the case, people don't see the rest of the iceberg below the surface, drowning.

    Empathy is one of the strongest genetically gifted human emotions and also in most circles, one of the most under appreciated. I would suggest that Ego might have something to do with it, as if there is something wrong with being empathetic? Something less masculine or successful? The connotation of emotive problem solving or integration of empathy in the work place is looked down on as if it were soft or less appropriate in a board room. It takes us back in time to a male dominated mindest, where blue prevails over pink and hard is better then soft. Those days are in our past.

    When you come and sit in my board room; First off, whatever gets the best result and with the most consistency, wins. Secondly the ability to empathize with the consumer, the co worker, the partner firm, those are great qualities and they are proven to build long and healthier relationships.

    Maybe we need to consider re branding the symbol for the heart to be blue, if that is what we perceive as a stronger? No, instead let's look more closely, After all the blood coming in is blue before it gets pumped back to the lungs were it is revitalized, and returns to its red tone and then is pumped around the body to provide, long lasting, healthy cellular and systemic biological lives. Try skipping that empathetic, user necessary step of re oxygenating and pump that blue empty blood back to the systems of the body and see where it gets you. Try to convince the cells that they need de oxygenated blood when they are telling you they want oxygen and nutrients. It is no different in the working world.

    Our companies, our industries and our societies are so similar to the systems of the body. Empathy, the symbol, of the heart and the color that accompanies it, they foster health and life as they should in our external world as well.

  • jesus arguelles

    Great observations about empathy and necessary condition for innovation to take place in any enterprise. I would add that role playing must accompany it to actualize or transform it into stream of consciousness that leads to an innovative framing of ideas. Also, I would submit that empathy is the platform to accelerate the trust-building process with a perspective client. And finally, empathetic fluency (my fancy phrase for changing levels of empathy during the innovating process) is the real characteristic that must be present in an innovator to sustain innovative thinking and generate results.