4 Ways to Avoid Innovation Catastrophe in Experiential Design


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“Empathy means that I understand your situation.”

The call rep with two intricate sleeve tattoos folded his hands and glanced down at the table for a moment.

“Sympathy means that I agree with your point view”, he paused and then looked at me.

“You should always strive for empathy, but not always sympathy.”

I was interviewing supervisors in a call center when I was provided with this gem of insight. This advice was tendered by call center pro, based on years of dealing with agitated and sometimes very angry customers. His job was to help find some form of resolution and hopefully retain them as a customer. I could tell he was good at his job. After all, those sleeve tattoos aren’t cheap.

Empathy is thrown around a bunch in the design and business world today as a necessary requisite for success, but very few engage in the practice. That’s too bad, because the world would be, by any account, a much better place if more people were better at this skill. After all, most conflicts, big and small, are caused by a lack of empathy; a lack of understanding the other side.

Innovations that fail do so because the inventor is overconfident in their understanding of the customer. Look through any product flop and you will likely find a lack of empathy as one of the core reasons for its demise. Entire companies cease to exist because they believe they are right, and the customer is wrong. Or the customer is just plain forgotten. Companies that re-find their way based on a closer relationship with the customer such as Lego and Apple soar to success. 

Ok, so it’s important but how do you achieve it? Glad you asked.

1. Talk to People

It seems so basic, but simply talking to customers in their environment without any agenda can go a long way in understanding both latent and manifest wants and needs. This involves so much more than interviewing to ascertain the importance of price, color, size, and other attributes they may want in a product. That is not empathy.

Empathy is understanding that an older African American woman in Washington DC can’t afford to fix her furnace, is temporarily furloughed, and when she can go to work has to take three forms of transit to get there. It is understanding that she feels alone and unsure about her future. It’s meeting a helpful neighbor who further tells me about her situation. It’s walking in her neighborhood. Empathy is gained through listening to the stories and narratives in their lives. It is not just what they want, which they may not be able to articulate, it is how they live their life. It’s the messy stuff.

In the world of experiential design there are many techniques borrowed from the social sciences that are effective in gaining a deep understanding of others’ world views. Ethnographies and in-home interviews are time-consuming and expensive, but you generally learn so much more talking to people in their environment. You are following the maxim of meeting people where they are, versus where you want them to be. If you are in the business of product and service development (experiential design), this fundamental step in delving into your customers’ lives (with their permission) pays huge dividends.

2. Seek Different and Opposing Views

Confirmation bias is a term used in psychology that refers to our tendency to find information that supports our worldview. That is, we bracket off a belief set and then selectively seek out evidence that validates it. Why? Because it makes us feel better of course. We like being right and being right reduces our cognitive dissonance and makes us feel more confident. Engaging in confirmation bias serves to salve the powerful negative bugaboo of uncertainty that humans abhor.

In the business of innovation this can be deadly. We all know inventors fall in love with their ideas. A classic scene from the series Silicon Valley (Season 3, Episode 9) illustrates this issue nicely. In this scene, Richard, an inventor of an innovative file-sharing platform, is having his product reviewed in a focus group and it is not going well. Let’s listen in, shall we?

Richard (the inventor): That’s that platform. He’s [the upset focus group participant] describing the platform and what’s great about it. Clearly, he doesn’t get it. None of them get it. Maybe this is just a bad group?
Focus Group Admin: This is the fifth one today and the least hostile reaction we’ve seen
Richard: Ok, well everyone I showed the beta to loved it
Monica (Co-worker): Oh sh*t
Richard: What?
Monica: Who did you give the beta to? Your friends…engineers…
Richard: Yea Monica, I wanted to give it to people who understand what I am trying to do so I can get useful feedback, and, with all due respect, I gave it to you, the one person without a computing background, and you said it felt ‘engineered’
Monica: looks at Richard
Richard: Oh sh*t
Monica: Yeah, you were trying to sell the platform to regular people, but you never put it in the hands of regular people. Like them…

While the excerpt above is kind of funny, that same process, supercharged by social media, is driving a wedge in society like never before.[1]

What to do about this? The answer is obvious; while difficult, make sure you are actively and openly seeking out opposing views. It is so easy to fall in love with your innovative idea that it is almost inevitable you will get blinded by it. Like the ring in the Lord of the Rings, many entrepreneurs are just a hop, skip, and jump from crooning ‘my precious‘ when talking about their innovation.

The other night, I was shocked to see my liberal-leaning teenage daughter fully engaged in reading the book Scorched Earth by Michael Savage. By any standard, this is an extreme tomb of political ideology that is counter to my young daughters’ worldview. Interested, if she had a change of heart, I asked her why she checked out the book. She said it was because she wanted to understand the other side’s perspective. This genuine and honest desire to truly understand the other perspectives without agreeing with them is the essence of what we are trying to achieve.

Practically, how do we ensure we are harvesting diverse and opposing viewpoints?

One technique I borrowed for use in new product and service development is called ‘the courtroom’. In qualitative groups, we first review the concept with all the participants as objectively as possible. Next, we split the group into two. The one side argues in favor of the new concept as if they were prosecutors and the other side argues in opposition. I then flip the groups around. Usually, in the second-round, arguments get hardened as do the defense and you can see where your vulnerabilities and opportunities are both in design and communication. Sometimes I will have a holdout third group as the jury. This approach invariably reveals blind spots and opportunities that would never have occurred to the development team.

3. Find New Lenses

Every day I take my two mongrel rescue dogs around the block for their morning walk. I am always struck by their giddiness to get going in the morning as if it was the first time, they ever went for one. I secretly wish I could muster the same enthusiasm so early in the morning.

While walking I can’t help but notice their insistent sniffing. Both will stop mid-walk, plant their feet in the ground, and sniff a specific non-descript spot as if it was the intriguing olfactory equivalent of the closing episode Breaking Bad. What are they experiencing? What is so damn interesting about that specific blade of grass?

Dogs rely on smell almost as much as they do on sight, maybe more so. Their sense of smell is estimated to be between 10,000 to 100,000 times that of humans[2]. How different must their worldview be with that heightened sensitivity? What does the world look like to them?

While we can’t mimic the dog’s olfactory senses easily, we can mimic others’ situations. Working with a large retailer, we often assisted them in conducting ‘shopping safaris’ whereby we would have associates take on the role of customers in carrying out shopping tasks. However, it wasn’t the typical any customer, we developed specific personas to try to understand their perspective. One of the personas we used was that of an elderly customer with cataracts. The faux shopper was issued a cane and glasses that purposely distorted their vision and then they were sent on a shopping task. Others were given faux babies while they were shopping. Still others were instructed to be confined to a wheelchair.

Through these temporary constraints they came to understand, if only in a limited way and only for a few hours, how it felt to be in those positions. The insight was always immediate and profound. It was (and is) an effective way to help people understand others’ situations.

4. Think Like Others

When lived in the Midwest, my wife and I became good friends with another couple with a young daughter similar in age to our own. On the surface, our relationship seemed improbable. We had little in common. Different religious views, political views, and very different educational backgrounds. Yet, that didn’t matter.

We didn’t feel the need to convince one another of the wrongness of one another’s ways. We established mutual respect and just agreed to disagree on certain topics. While we didn’t regard any topic as off-limits, we also didn’t focus on our differences; we focused on our shared interests and values.

I am fairly sure neither of us changes one another’s views significantly. I found when I took a moment to stop espousing how right I was and just listened and watched, I learned quite a bit. I also learned about our similarities. I learned that fundamentally, most folks are driven by good, it’s just that we have different views on how to get there.

This too is part of empathy. It is not enough to just understand another point of view; you achieve another level if you can actually think like your customers. How would they interpret this situation? What would they think of this communication? Again, you don’t have to agree with that point of view, but as uncomfortable as that might be, you do have to acknowledge its existence.

This is the essence of social categorization theory[3]. We define ourselves by our group affiliations and beliefs associated with those groups. We are parents, students, scuba divers, baseball players, blue-collar workers, and musicians. The categories into which we define ourselves give us a sense of belongingness and certainty. Daring to indulge in others’ viewpoints threatens our psychological well-being. That’s why it is so hard to do. It threatens our self-identity. It might bring doubt to our worldviews. That is no bueno for the certainty seeking human.

The profession of acting can be instructive in this endeavor. To be successful and convincing, actors must subjugate their self to the role they are playing. Good actors do not just plaster a veneer over themselves, they try to become the role. Experiencing their role and changing their physicality can help achieve this goal. For example, actor Christian Bale lost an astonishing 120 pounds in his portrayal in the film, The Mechanic[4].

Moreover, this transformation is not just physical, it is also neurological. Neurologists have found evidence through MRI scans that their “loss of self” is documented through different areas of brain functioning[5]. That is, when actors are portraying a specific role, areas in their brain light up that are completely different than we they are being themselves.

While it might feel a bit uncomfortable, in your efforts to understand your customers (or spouse, children, or really anyone) it is helpful to experiment with this approach. Clear your mind of yourself and try to think like them. Write down what you would say as the customer? What would you feel? Don’t engage in the exercise as channeling your customer, but you as a customer.

Balancing Roles

The delicate balance in all of this is to use different points of view to inform experience design. Just like falling in love with your idea, you can get overly customer-focused as well. Going ‘native’ as a customer advocate can result in your ignoring practical and economic constraints in favor of following only one muse: the customer. Like gifted ventriloquists, successful designers can shift in and out of many roles in their quest to create authentic experiences that both thrill customers and pay the rent. 

I hope you will try some of these techniques and let me know how it went.


[1] https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2014/06/12/political-polarization-in-the-american-public/

[2] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0168159105002194?via%3Dihub

[3] https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2010-11535-012

[4] https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2010-11535-012

[5] https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rsos.181908

Dave Fish, Ph.D.

Dave is the founder of CuriosityCX, an insights and advisory consultancy for Customer Experience. Formerly he was CMO for MaritzCX, now an InMoment company. He has 25+ years of applied experience in understanding consumer behavior consulting with Global 50 companies. Dave has held several executive positions at the Mars Agency, Engine Group, J.D. Power and Associates, Toyota Motor North America, and American Savings Bank. He teaches at the Sam Walton School of Business at the University of Arkansas. He is the author of "The Customer Experience Field Guide" available on Amazon and BookLogix.com.


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