Design Thinking Art and Science Of Customer Empathy

The Art And Science Of Customer Empathy In Design Thinking

Customer-centric solutions demand empathy. But, how we employ this principle within design thinking is as critical—if not more—as what we do in the process.

Certain slices can be easily repeated—that’s the science part. However, not everything fits neatly into a template. More than anything else, we rely on our creativity to accurately frame a problem and discover the attached opportunity. That’s the art of customer empathy within design thinking.

In my previous post, I discussed three factors that are critical turning empathy into an obsession when developing customer-centric innovations. I want to expand on this topic and elaborate on how it can also be applied to our everyday work as well.

Customer empathy is not inherited or repeated-it’s continuously learned

The unconditional act of projecting ourselves into our customers’ (or users’) shoes has to be unreserved. Empathy works only if we open up our nerve endings and feel what it is like to be in another’s shoes. One of the key approaches is adopting a beginner’s mindset that functions as a reset button—enabling us to experience a product or service as if it’s the first time we are using it.

In human-centered design, we use a set of tools to observe and communicate with people and better understand their journey. Empathetic listening and observation are essential during the entire design process:

  • Immersion: Place ourselves in the full experience through the eyes of the user.
  • Observation: Carefully watch and examine what people are actually doing.
  • Conversation: Accurately capture conversations and personal stories.

All three approaches require focus and precision because they typically produce different insights. To learn, we must listen more than we talk. When we observe, we disappear, rather than interfere. There is no room for sharing our opinions or selling the solution. We want facts. If we can’t understand the “why” behind an experience or problem, any assumptions about the “what” and “how” become skewed or misleading.

Our knowledge is the source of our bias-sometimes

In design, what we know can be just as detrimental as what we don’t know. One of the best examples of this reality is seen in technology projects.

Senior developers cooped up in a lab can produce very sophisticated code. These teams develop customer-facing elements based on a bias that reflects their extensive knowledge of the technology while ignoring steps considered minor from their vantage point. However, these minor steps are indispensable to users who are not necessarily tech-savvy—which may make up the majority of their customer base.

By simply leaving out parts that they consider obvious corners, these teams may not observe or attempt to live the experience through the eyes of the actual user—missing out on the opportunity to create a well-rounded, customer-centric experience.

With design thinking, we always insist on seeking untested experiences so we can capture unrefined observations that frame the details of the user journey.

“Emosurances” influence our perception of a product or service

Humans tend to react to emotional assurances (emosurances). They play a crucial role in designing a human-centered user experience—especially the user interface (UI).

For example, consider the experience with a digital process or transaction:

  • How many times do you find yourself in a state of uncertainty?
  • Do you know where you are in the process or queue?
  • Will you get an alert when it’s completed?
  • Will you abandon it because you are unsure of the next step?
  • Are you given any visual feedback, such as a progress bar?
  • If there is service interruption, do you get a notification? Is the message clear enough that it does not require further translation to understand next steps?

The scenarios are endless and apply to any user experience—digital or analog, online or in person. And even though these questions appear mechanical and a matter of UI, tackling these emosurances proactively is at the core of the empathy principle.

Bottom line

The traditional value proposition of a product or service is a promise of particular utility value. If you get X, you will receive Y as a result of Z. The design-thinking value proposition is a promise of core values: You want to get X because you care about Y and Z matters to you.

The actual value of the empathy principle comes from understanding our customers’ 360-degree viewpoint, especially their emotional attachments. Then, we can deliver a compelling value proposition that guides us along the innovation path. This approach enables a forward-thinking mindset that fuels a cultural shift paramount for competing on design thinking.