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The importance of authentic empathy when connecting with consumers

Technology & Data

The importance of authentic empathy when connecting with consumers


Gaia Grant and Andrew Grant write that the best ideas and solutions come from better emotional connections, in this excerpt adapted from their book The Innovation Race: How to change a culture to change the game.

Who would have thought that emotions would contribute to better innovation, stronger marketing impact, and general business success? Yet that is exactly what researchers have found: the best ideas and solutions come from better emotional connections.

Empathy is now pretty much universally recognised as an integral part of all areas of the innovation process, from A to Z, and as a foundation for creative development. Bestselling business author Dan Pink believes empathy ‘makes the world a better place’ because it is all about ‘standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes’.

The shopping trolley challenge

The importance of empathy and understanding the user’s perspective when designing and selling new products and services has been embraced by a wide range of companies. As an example of how this can work in practice, let’s consider the challenge of shopping trolleys.

Have you ever noticed how difficult these trolleys can be to negotiate around the supermarket aisles, how items become wedged or buried deep in the basket, and how frustratingly long it can take to get through the checkout process? IDEO was set the challenge of designing a new shopping cart (it’s worth watching the ABC Nightline video that shows them going through the process).

To deal with shoppers’ frustration at having to wrestle a full trolley up and down the aisles, a number of years ago IDEO designers came up with ideas for carts that are more like skeletons providing a frame for baskets to be slotted in and stacked to allow for collecting and searching for a few items at a time. They added hooks around the edges of the skeletal structure on which shoppers can hang plastic bags. They then designed a cart concept with a scanner on the handle so shoppers can do the scanning as they place the items in the basket rather than having to go through the whole process at the checkout at the end.

The product had immediate appeal to a wide range of independent consumers who had felt the frustrations for themselves.

Taking the designer’s perspective

The ‘design thinking‘ approach to innovation has captured and developed the concept of empathy, to make it inseparable from the process. Design thinking (which originated from Stanford d-school) is a powerful ideation and design process widely used by businesses today to come up with new products and services and to find ways to market them. Leading global innovative companies such as Apple and Google, along with more established Australian companies such as AMP and the Commonwealth Bank, use design thinking on a day-to-day basis.

The process focuses on looking at a challenge that may appear to have no clear solution, identifying the underlying problem at the heart of the issue, then trying to understand the different perspectives and needs related to the issue. The designer will initially identify the desires and needs of the users and, through an iterative process of prototyping, develop products, systems and services that best meet the user’s needs. CEO and IDEO President Tim Brown describes design thinking as, “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

Brown also nominates an outward-looking perspective and empathy as prerequisites for innovation: “A sense of inquiry, of curiosity, is essential for innovation, and the quickest way for removing curiosity in my opinion is to have organisations that are too inward-facing,” he suggests. “A sense of empathy for the world and for the people whose problems they might be trying to solve – that’s essential.”

Empathy provides the ‘human-centred’ focus in design thinking. It is the link between the person designing the new product or solution and the end user. By starting with empathy, the designer can understand and relate to the issues the user faces and therefore create designs that best meet their needs.

Connect with compassion

Rather than trying to use empathy as a shallow marketing tactic, empathy should become a deeper, more transformational form of compassion: authentic empathy can actually make a difference in people’s lives.

As an example of this principle at work, the conception and promotion of number of useful inventions can be traced back to creative people who have attempted to understand and assist the disabled. Inventions such as the bendy straw, the telephone, the typewriter and icon-based keyboards have all become popular because the inventors tried to help disabled people they knew, and then the marketing people picked up on the broader possibilities.

‘In empathising with others, we create things that we might never have created for ourselves,’ says a Co.Design article on the subject. ‘We see past the specifics of what we know, to experiences that might actually be universal.’

Which makes authentic empathy a powerful tool for positive change.


Gaia Grant and Andrew Grant are the authors of The Innovation Race: How to change a culture to change the game (Wiley) along with a number of other international bestselling books and resources. As the directors of Tirian International Consultancy they help to create innovation cultures for a range of international organisations. Gaia Grant is a post-graduate researcher and guest lecturer at Sydney University Business School. Learn more at The-innovation-race.com.

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