The role of empathy in the design of products and services

Peter Timmer | 31st May 2016

When you design a product that truly addresses an unmet need, that product will establish an emotional connection with the user, from which engagement becomes real.

How might you gain the insight that will uncover the hierarchy of unmet customer needs, from which you will choose the one your product will address?  

One answer to this question is the development of an empathetic mindset, a mindset that seeks a detailed understanding of the customer and what they feel and think, when doing things at work – things where unmet needs arise. With such a mindset you will start to use empathy in design.

How do you start to develop such an empathetic mindset?

In this article, Customer Experience Consultant Peter Timmer talks through what it means to design with empathy for the customer, and why it produces better products and services for pharma and healthcare.

 

Build a map of the customers’ environment – to better understand their experience

Empathy requires deep research with real people in their natural environments. It is deep because it will not be market research as a commodity –

Nurse, what is your greatest frustration during therapy administration in the clinic?

 

Suitable research will be grounded in getting as close to reality as possible:

  • Spending a period of time observing life in the clinic
  • Actively working with healthcare professionals (HCPs) to simulate the things which cannot be observed, maybe for reasons of confidentiality
  • Talking through scenario-based stories, stories built around models and sketches of the clinic with actors in specific places at particular times.

These are provocative methods, methods that generate data about the movements, thoughts, reasoning and emotions of the customer; methods that generate data – the value of which is unknown when a concept brief is written. Such data will help a design team know the customer better, and enable designers make better informed design decisions. Building the map is foundational for the identification of opportunity that leads to the creation of products and services that have wider commercial value.

Take a leap of faith – to get to the ‘why’

Design is not science. A designer needs to trust their instincts when making inferences, inferences that fill the gaps left during data collection and map creation.

You notice during a discussion with an HCP that he snapped when asked whether he tries new therapies, saying he never ‘tries’ a new therapy, he follows the guidance. Why did he snap? Why did the thought of ‘trying’ new therapies frustrate him?

To answer these questions, you need to review all the available evidence from map building to come up with the strongest answer to a whole series of ‘why questions’; questions that would never have been entertained when writing the discussion guide which fuelled data capture.

You are now involved with the customer, and can paint customers with different needs, motivations, and feelings as a series of personas. The personas should move beyond the ethnographically descriptive, to support reasoning in design for the prescriptive. Empathy will help you second-guess customer reactions to features and layout configurations entertained during the design process.

Foster a spirit of iterative co-creation

Design based on empathy with the customer (and their circumstances) will not be compromised by involving the customer in the design process at all stages. Co-creation may be a one-off workshop, or better still, further iterative research (in an agile style) that probes to peel off the layers of interest at selected points in the design process.

How does our newly targeted unmet need chime with the owners of such a need? Have they ever thought through designs for products and services that will address their unmet need?

And so design becomes user-centred in a deep and involved way.

The search for empathy with a customer is the search for research techniques that will uncover rich data to build a map from which to launch inferences, it is a search to better understand how the customer feels based on experience.

 

Read more about human-centred design in Perspective issue two.

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