All companies want to innovate. Whether it is to gain market share, to enter new markets or to defend against new entrants, innovation is a requirement. Your industry, your market and your competition are evolving every day, causing your customers to become more demanding and increase their expectations.
A lot of organisations innovate by exploring and cloning the competition’s offerings and introducing new technology. This provides short-term gains but long-term commoditization, disengagement and diminishing returns. A much better way to successful innovation is to build an alliance with your customers: understand their needs and desires, design solutions that engage them emotionally as well as functionally, and create products that they never knew they wanted and your competition cannot easily duplicate. Design Thinking is the process by which this alliance is built, and empathy is the currency of Design Thinking.
Empathy is the heart of design. Without understanding what others see, feel and experience, design is a pointless task.
Tim Brown, IDEO
There are no shortcuts to empathy. You need to be able to walk in your customers’ shoes, observing their lives and identifying the underlying causes of pain as well as joy. Before you start codifying your opportunities and prototyping ideas that may fit your business needs, you must ensure you give enough attention to discovery.
The discovery phase is the first stage of a 4D innovation process. A rushed discovery will compromise the rest of your innovation efforts, so it is imperative to spend sufficient time and effort in discovery, identifying customer needs, business opportunities and mapping the wider environment of technology, partners, suppliers and ecosystems that you and your customers share.
Do you know what makes your customers tick? What are their real needs? Their aspirations? The things that bring them joy, fear and pain? In order to create winning innovation, you must first gain a rich, in-depth understanding of the people whom the service is for. This applies to both B2C and B2B: businesses are social structures and the people in the business are, well, people.
Innovation is a mature process, and the tools to conduct reliable customer insight discovery are well documented. My favourite ones include Ethnographic Study, Shadowing, Contextual Enquiry, Diary Studies and Focus Groups. The first 3 are great at providing in-depth discovery leading to true empathy through truly unexpected insights, at the cost of a long time and potentially access to fewer customers. The last 2 are great to validate promising insights as well as to refresh and update knowledge and test early hypotheses.
A counterintuitive aspect of discovery is that you must ensure you speak to outliers: those customers who don’t quite fit the mainstream population. While you mustn’t study just outliers, you must make sure to include them in your discovery. For example, users with disabilities were regularly ignored by the designers of the early web. Once accessibility was embraced through a combination of regulation and good business sense, we discovered that services designed for accessibility benefit everyone, regardless of special need. Today, everyone’s expectations about service accessibility are much higher, and we all benefit from accessible design. Go the extra mile to find those outliers and include them in your study.
Studying the ecosystem
True empathy cannot be based simply on understanding the people: you must understand the world they live in too. Tools to understand the wider ecosystem include Expert Review, Deep Dive, Competitor Analysis, Trends Analysis, Market Analysis and Comparative Reviews. More esoteric techniques such as Futurescaping may also play a role, particularly for companies engaged in Disruptive and Fast-follower innovation.
Before you start designing, ensure that the results of all the different research activities are analysed, distilled, codified and widely distributed, in usable forms that the entire company can pick up and use. This is a very important stage: there are many cases of organisations where the value of insight is not realised because knowledge never leaves the small team of experts that generate it. Empathy must permeate to every function, team and colleague. There is no point in having an empathy team.
Everyone will benefit from Character Profiles and Personas, well-designed and relatable documents that summarise your understanding of customers. Product, Service and Operations team engaged in day-to-day product management as well as Innovation need more detail. Maps are great for this audience. Journeys, Moments, Needs, Issues and Affinity
Ready to design
The final tools a discovery process creates ensures a seamless transition to the Design phase. A Project Canvas summarises insight and opportunities and ensures everyone is fully aware of the findings and agreed on what the design phase should achieve.
This is supported by Use Cases, high-level scenarios that describe how insight turns into opportunity and describe the customer need simply. These will be used as seed for user stories during Design and Development.
Go discover, build empathy!
A well-structured, properly executed Discovery can’t be rushed, but it will provide great returns for a long time to come. Using the tools listed here will ensure that you conduct a successful discovery that yields brilliant insights. In order to know you’re making real progress, check for signs of empathy. You should be able to see your team first, and then the rest of the organisation, refer to actual people by name, mention surprising insight with context and smile when they reflect in what they are learning and the people they’re meeting. Empathy is the secret sauce of innovation: when it comes to building new products, your teams will go the extra mile for the people they now know so well. And your customers will notice it.