How to Discover & Empathize for Innovation

It’s human nature to want to solve a problem as soon as it arises, but in order to provide the best, most innovative solution it is absolutely essential to start from the beginning – and that means gathering data, including talking with users and stakeholders. Why? Here’s an example. When I was working in the Colorado School of Mines’ first and second year design program, we had a group of students who were tasked to design a device that would prevent packages from being stolen off the front porch. They were given a set of specs by the client to make sure the device could accommodate typical package sizes, and they gathered information on why and what types of packages are typically stolen. However, the team felt that they knew what the end user would want, and instead of talking with them, they moved straight to designing a solution. The result? A large, black, three foot by four foot lockbox of sorts that was to be placed outside the front door.

When the prototype was presented in class, the results were clear. While the solution certainly ticked all the boxes, not a single person in the class thought that they would be interested in purchasing one. Who would want that sitting outside their door all the time? was the general consensus. The team was quite shocked – how could people not love their solution that was sure to keep packages safe? If they had spent more time talking with their stakeholders upfront, and truly listened to what those stakeholders had to say, the team most likely would have figured out that, aside from simply keeping packages safe, having a discreet, attractive solution was also a priority. That’s why this first step is crucial to design thinking, and why user-centered design has become so prevalent over the years.

As I mentioned in my previous post about design thinking, all of the steps in this process are good for creators of all types, not just for designers of physical products, and the discovery/empathy step is no different. Take the highly criticized Kendal Jenner Pepsi ad. I truly believe Pepsi’s marketers had the intent of producing a unifying, positive message that would resonate with people from all across the nation. However, this well-intentioned idea quickly went downhill when those in charge ran with the concept without thoroughly consulting their stakeholders: viewers of all ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds, religious beliefs, and geographic areas of the country. The Atlantic wrote an interesting piece on the possible process used to create the ad, suggesting that siloed, non-collaborative internal teams and use of homogenous consultants could have been part of the problem. When we assumed we know best, better than our end users, that’s when things tend to fall apart. As human beings, we automatically see the situation from our own perspective. We filter out information that we personally don’t find relevant, but that could be central to another person’s experience. Until we spend the time to figure out from others what those data points actually are, there’s no way we can really know what’s important to them.

How to Discover & Empathize

Obviously the discovery and empathy step is essential, but how do you actually do it? Here are two simple steps to get started: identify your stakeholders, then observe and record everything.

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1. Identify Your Stakeholders

The first step is to figure out who your stakeholders are, and who is most important. In any given project there are far too many stakeholders to be able to engage with each one, so you’ll need to do some prioritization. A stakeholder is any person who will use or be affected by your product. For example, in the package security device mentioned above, some stakeholders would include the homeowner, the mailman, the postal service, the manufacturer, the distributor, the government/lawmakers… the scope goes far beyond just the homeowner and the mailman!

Here are some questions that can help you start to generate a list of stakeholders for your own problem: (note that product can refer to a physical product, a service, a piece of content…)

  • Who will be using or consuming the product?
  • Is anyone regulating the product or industry?
  • Who is producing the product?
  • How will the user acquire the product?
  • Who might oppose the product?
  • Who might support the product?

After you have your list of stakeholders, it’s time to do some analysis. There are many techniques for doing this, however my favorite tool is to plot all of my stakeholders according to the level of influence they’ll have over the project vs. the level of interest they’ll have in the project. This should definitely take some thought, but try not to get too caught up in making it perfect, as each person is going to have a different opinion on exactly where each stakeholder should be placed. As you’re moving through the design process, you can always go back and revise.

Here’s an example of what stakeholder analysis might look like for an influencer who is creating an app in conjunction with a partner (think a clothing company approaching an Instagram star to do a fashion app). Keep in mind, this is just an example and is not an exhaustive or definitive analysis.

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Once you have all of the stakeholders plotted, you can easily determine who to focus on by dividing up the graph into quadrants, with stakeholders who have a high level of influence and interest being your key stakeholders, and the stakeholders with a low level of influence and interest being stakeholders you can focus on less.

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Congratulations! You now have a prioritized list of stakeholders and can move on to step number two: observe and record.

2. Observe Your Stakeholders and Record Everything

Now is the fun part! In this step, it’s time to talk to/interact with/observe your stakeholders. Approach this portion with an open mind. Notice I say to record of everything, even pieces of information that may not seem relevant or important at the time. Down the road, when you’re defining your problem or ideating solutions, that thing you thought was frivolous could come back to be the final link needed to fully form an idea.

While you’re out with your stakeholders, also consider your methods of data collection. In addition to taking notes with a pen and paper, you most likely will also want to take pictures or record video footage. For example, one of the projects when I was at Mines was to design a better wheelchair for users in Africa. During our subject matter expert talks, we had a wheelchair user volunteer to come and speak about what it was like to use a wheelchair daily, as well as to demonstrate how he physically maneuvered around obstacles. He agreed to let us film his segment, and it was incredibly helpful for students to refer back to as they were working on their designs. As they thought through solutions, they realized they didn’t know answers to certain questions, like what his body was doing as he moved up or down stairs, where he grabbed onto the wheelchair when climbing up from the floor, or why a bar or wheel or knob needed to be in a certain place. His incredibly informative hour long talk was too jam-packed with information to mentally absorb or record on paper and pencil, so having a video to refer back to made a huge difference down the road.

When you’re ready to engage your stakeholders, here are some ways in which you may want to interact:

  • Interview stakeholders and ask them open-ended questions about the hows and whys of using a particular product or facing a certain challenge
  • Observe stakeholders as they interact with the problem in their daily lives, noting why it’s a challenge and how they’re overcoming that challenge
  • Interact with your stakeholders as they go about tasks, letting them guide you along but also stopping to dig deeper along the way

If you’re a blogger who’s building an online marketing guide, sit with some of your readers and watch how they currently market their businesses. What tools are they using? Who are they speaking with? What challenges them? Ask them about their problems and let them show you the most difficult tasks they face. All the while, make notes about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and how they’re feeling. You may discover that you thought all millennials know how to use Twitter, however that instead of automatically scheduling out her Tweets, one reader is setting reminders in her phone to manually Tweet, a practice that is taking up valuable time and energy that could be better spent elsewhere. Or maybe you thought you needed to include a section about using Slack as a tool for communication amongst teams, but none of the readers you met have an internal team to communicate with. The insights you uncover will most likely surprise you.

While you’re collecting all of your data, don’t worry too much about making neat notes or organizing everything too meticulously. In the next step, where you’ll be defining your problem, you’ll be combing through, organizing, re-organizing, grouping, diagramming, and analyzing all of the information you collected.

The discover and empathize step of the design process is essential and should never be skipped, no matter how well you feel you know the problem or user. Even if you ARE a user and you’ve experienced challenges firsthand, that doesn’t mean that other people aren’t having different, yet equally valid challenges. (And if I still haven’t convinced you of it’s necessity, Slate does a great job as describing the value of empathy in this piece about the Embrace Infant Warmer.)


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