Part One: Perspectives of Empathy

In this week’s blog, whether you’re a novice or experienced user of design thinking, I invite you to begin exploring how you can better understand the human experience and use design thinking to design and deliver great customer experiences, as well as apply it to solve the most complex of problems… even the wicked ones. In doing so, we’ll delve into and unfold a better understanding of the emotion and motivations that lie at the core of our human experience. We’ll peel back the layers of what makes up the customer experience and explore our unrelenting pursuit of human-centered design. In doing so, you’ll likely broaden your perspective and thinking, and discover how you can more creatively engage in, and contribute to, the delivery of great customer and user experiences. Along the way, you may also find the means through which to solve even the most perplexing of problems you face.

Since last November’s release of our new book Innovation By Design, I have traveled across the United States, delivering workshops focusing on “How to Design and Lead Cultures of Innovation.” Throughout my interactions with attendees, inevitably, the conversation focuses on the need for empathy, and the interpretation of human motivation. A common conclusion we reach is that without having an understanding of the human motivation and desire, it’s pretty much impossible to understand the customer or user experience (let alone to be able to interpret what and why people are attracted to buy or use a particular product or service).

Like most endeavors, the quality and value of the steps we take in any process or plan directly reflect the clarity with which we understand the desired outcome. In other words, it pays to begin with the end in mind. Adhering to this thinking shifts our attention to recognizing the importance of the very first step we take. In any business, the end game is the creation, offering, and supplying of a product or service that offers a solution to customer’s problem and fulfills their desire or need. It is this fulfillment that lies at the heart of the customer experience and business success.  

The Evolving “Megatrend”

As an approach to understanding the customer experience, design thinking is very likely the most useful and powerful approach developed to date. It is also probably why design thinking has been so broadly adopted by innovative thinkers and organizations everywhere and why we’ve come to recognize it as an evolving “megatrend” in business. It’s one thing to provide a process for problem solving. It’s another thing to capture and elevate our shared human experience. Design thinking differs from other problem solving methods by offering a more creative, human-centered approach that requires a more significant level of understanding of the human motivation. This is also what makes it that much more applicable to a broader set of business and social problems than most other methods.  

Why does design thinking work so well?

Let’s start at the top and begin by looking into the actual process and the core steps or phases of design thinking. The following steps are relatively consistent across the variety of tailored approaches:

  • Empathizing
  • Defining the Right Problem
  • Ideation or Creating Solutions
  • Prototyping
  • Testing

A simple explanation is that right at the outset, design thinking centers squarely on the human experience. It thereby allows us to not only better understand a customer’s behavior, but also to better interpret and understand the emotional influences and motivations behind that behavior. Ultimately, this deeper understanding of a customer or user’s experience allows us to design products and services to more fully and accurately respond to and fulfill our underlying human desires.

Of importance is recognizing that in order to successfully reach the end game and offer a solution that responds to a human desire, one needs to understand the significant role that empathy plays. The realization that being effective is using empathy and requires the development of the knowledge and skills necessary to engage in contextual inquiry. Without having a framework for interpreting human behavior and motivation, it is difficult to truly appreciate empathy and be open to its influence. Without this, it’s rather difficult (if not impossible) to seek and define the right problem that needs to be confronted and solved. Hence, the first step in the design thinking process of empathizing is vital to achieving the right end game.

Two Perspectives

One of the keys to achieving true empathy and arriving at the right end game is to embrace the idea that when we engage with others, there are always at least two perspectives. Embracing this simple yet powerful idea is coming to the understanding that to be successful in taking the first step of design thinking.

The first is our own perspective, requiring that we have an awareness of the views, beliefs, and values we hold. These elements are fundamental to understanding our own experiences. This is made even more powerful when we begin to examine why we think about, see, and feel about things in the manner we do. This form of self-inquiry lends itself to us better understanding our own motivations and desires and how they inform our relationship to, and interpretation of, our own experiences. We thereby reach a point at which we not only better recognize our own biases, we begin to recognize that others think, see, and feel differently than we do. Furthermore, we begin to develop the ability to explore our own individual perspective and uncover how it informs our interpretation of another person’s experience.

The second perspective is that of the other person and requires us to have the ability to be open to it. One can easily see why being conscious of the first perspective is the key to being open to listening to, exploring, and ultimately, to understanding another person’s experience and being more empathetic. In simple terms, we must be conscious of our own set of values, beliefs, and motivations to be open to exploring those of another person. Only when we are conscious of our own first perspective can we fully embrace the second perspective, as well as begin to truly understand others.

There’s a great deal of truth in the expression, “To understand others, I must first understand myself.”  Among my workshop attendees, there is significant evidence that they understand this at an intellectual level. It’s when we move into deeper exploration and begin to connect to the emotional and motivational level, that they are more challenged. In fact, many do not have a framework or approach to better interpret a customer’s emotional experience. By no coincidence, many of them have not explored their own experiences at that level.

The result?

If we’re unable to interpret our own emotion and motivation, it becomes very difficult to empathize with the experience of others. All too often, in the end, what we believe is an ideal customer experience differs from that of another person. Or, in other words, what we think we’re delivering through our product or service to satisfy a customer can so easily be far off the mark. Furthermore, without having an understanding and consciousness of the first perspective, it’s almost impossible to move from the first perspective (our own) to a second perspective, making it impossible to engage in true empathy. Unfortunately, this lack of knowledge and understanding is also what gets in the way of co-creation, collaboration, and teamwork, as well as the open inquiry necessary for curious confrontation and the soliciting and understanding of differing points of view, including our understanding of the customer.

On the other hand, through the ability to be more conscious of our emotion, motivation, values and beliefs, we unlock the incredible creativity that we are capable of and that allows us to do what human beings do best…innovate. It enables us to engage in design thinking and leverage our natural ability to participate in valued collaboration with one another, freely express ourselves and share our ideas, and pursue knowledge and find the right solutions to event the most difficult of problems.

The Next Question

That leads us to the next question. Is there a framework and approach that helps us to empathize with the customer, as well as with one another?

In my next blog, I’ll invite you to explore a proven framework through which you can better interpret and understand the emotional and motivational aspects of the customer, as well as those you work and live with. In doing so, we’ll uncover the means through which we can develop our ability to understand the first and second perspectives, and increase our ability to empathize and creatively solve problems together…even the wicked ones.  

Edgar Papke and Thomas Lockwood are the authors of  Innovation By Design and founders of InnoAlignment, a consultancy dedicated to assisting leaders in designing and building cultures of innovation, a consultancy dedicated to assisting leaders in designing and building cultures of innovation. Edgar is also an international award-winning speaker, leadership coach, and the author of the books True Alignment and The Elephant In The Boardroom.