The Role of Empathy in Innovation by Dr. Neeraj Sonalkar

The other day, my colleague in the Human Innovation Design group at Stanford remarked on the importance of empathy in design and innovation. Empathy has been at the forefront of the design thinking movement. Many of the groups we talk to about nurturing innovation ecosystems resonate with the message of empathy perhaps more than any other aspect of the innovation mindset. But what is the real significance of empathy and are we applying it correctly in today’s product innovation environments?

Empathy is a relatively new construct to the design innovation scene. Before the advent of the design thinking movement and the start of the Stanford, the term used to define the activity of understanding and researching users was ‘need-finding’. The emphasis here was on the need. And to me it was honest in the articulation that as designers we were in search of a need to build a product or service around. Somewhere in the evolution and growth of design thinking, need-finding changed into empathy.

Empathy is a core phenomenon that helps a design team get to a need. It is an essential quality if a design team has to uncover an implicit hidden need that could become the basis of a breakthrough product. Today’s product design and development teams wield enormous influence over the habits and behaviors of millions of users. Any change in the product made with a genuine empathy for the users will enable millions to have more enjoyable experiences and hassle-free lives.

Yet, there is something about how we talk about and use empathy in product innovation that bothers me. I have two main issues with empathy.

First, empathy can and has been misused to exploit users. Empathy seems like such a desirable and a deeply human quality. Yet in the context of an exploitative business model, empathy is the veneer under which designers create more and more exploitative products and services. I would say it is undoubtedly unempathetic of us as designers to do so. I recently watched The Social Dilemma on Netflix and it was both enlightening and frightening to hear from the designers how they created the features and systems that ensnared the attention of billions.

I believe that there is a way out of this. We need to move beyond empathy to authenticity. We need to be authentic about the intentions that users hold, that we hold as designers and that our businesses hold for their stakeholders. We need to align these intentions and in that aligned environment deploy empathy with genuine care. We need to modify some of our tools and methods to consider authenticity for example use Intention ladder instead of a How-Why ladder or an Intention-Alignment map beyond just the normal Empathy Map. Doing so will help us craft product experiences that are authentic and do not harbor hidden agendas. This will also help us create authentic businesses that are more aligned with their customer communities and hence more resilient.

Second, empathy can be shortsighted. The current tools for applying empathy in product innovation work great for pre-existing markets. If you are a company selling diapers and wants to create a slightly new product category for your users, the current crop of empathy tools will work great. But if you want to be at the edge of market innovation and open up new market segments, empathy is inadequate. If we want to emulate Tesla or Apple in their ability to create market defining innovation, we need to look beyond empathy to a singular focus and vision that combines technological advancement with a premium yet simple and cohesive quality of experience. Market leaders need to craft a visionary narrative that is pathbreaking yet in tune with the current zeitgeist… a bridge from the now to the future. Empathy then follows in this vision’s footsteps and assists in its realization.

So, empathy is important but not enough for great product innovation. It needs to be encapsulated by authenticity and led by a visionary product narrative. Only then can it rise to its inherent potential in helping us design a beautiful deeply human experience.

This article was originally published by Dr.Neeraj Sonalkar