I’ve worked with folks working on improving/transforming the Customer Experience. I’ve also worked with folks working on improving/transforming the Employee Experience. In the process, I have come across personas, customer journeys, voice of the customer surveys, design thinking, service design, process mapping…. Yes, I have come across plenty of stuff. Yet, I say that I have not come across that which gives life to the work of designing/orchestrating experiences that touch human lives as lived.
What is it that I am pointing at? Let’s listen to Satya Nadella talk in his book Hit Refresh:
Richard didn’t give me an engineering problem to solve on the whiteboard or a complex coding scenario to talk through. He didn’t grill me on my prior experiences or educational pedigree. He had one simple question.
“Imagine you see a baby laying in the street, and the baby is crying. What do you do?” he asked.
“You call 911,” I replied without much forethought.
Richard walked me out of his office, put his arm around me and said, “You need some empathy, man. If a baby is laying on the street crying, pick up the baby.”
Yes, that sums it up well. Most of the folks that I have encountered are intelligent like Nadella and have about the same emotional intelligence (empathy) as he had when this event occurred many years ago.
How Important Is Empathy in Experience Design?
Great design necessarily has to be human centred as only human beings can appreciate the presence/absence of great design. Is any kind of empathy sufficient? Or is a particular kind of empathy necessary? Lets listen to the folks at IDEO:
Human-centered design is all about building a deep empathy with the people you’re designing for…..
In the Inspiration Phase you’ll learn directly from the people you’re designing for as you immerse yourself in their lives and come to deeply understand their needs..
Notice, that IDEO folks speak of “deep empathy” – the kind of empathy that arises only after one has spent enough time immersed in their lives. It is that immersion (living in the arena in which life occurs) that leads to the deep understanding of their needs.
Yet, time after time I see folks ‘study’ their target (customer, employee) from a safe distance (sitting in the stands) through a variety of means – surveys, focus groups, interviews. Then use their intellect to come up with personas, journeys etc. All intellect, zero empathy.
Can you just take these ‘intellectuals’ and turn them into empaths with some classroom training? Or maybe an empathy app. Is it this simple?
The Right Kind of Life Experiences Are Essential To The Presence of Empathy
I say that suffering is essential to empathy. It is my own (personal) suffering in the arena of cancer that has led me to accept a request from a friend to reach out and talk with her friends father who is dying of liver cancer. How about Satya Nadella?
I discovered Buddha did not set out to found a world religion. He set out to understand why one suffers. I learned that only through living life’s ups and downs you can develop empathy….
It’s just that life’s experience has helped me build a growing sense of empathy for an ever widening circle of people. I have empathy for people with disabilities. I have empathy for people trying to make a living from the inner cities and the Rust Belt to the developing countries …. I have empathy for small business owners working to succeed. I have empathy for any person targeted with violence and hate because of the color of his or hers skin, what they believe, or who they love.
My passion is to put empathy at the centre of everything I pursue – from products we launch, to the new markets we enter, to the employees, customers, and partners we work with.
So how did an ‘intellectual’ like Nadella turn into such an empath. The clue is in the line “It’s just that life’s experiences …” Is there a particular life experience that was the turning point?
Little did I know then how profoundly our lives would change. Over the course of the next couple of years we learned more about the damage caused by utero-asphyxiation, and how Zain would require a wheelchair and be reliant on us because of sever cerebral palsy. I was devastated.
Something awful like this happens. It brings your world to a halt and suddenly you ooze with empathy. Right? Not necessarily. Let’s listen to Nadella:
I was devastated. But mostly I was sad for how things turned out for me and Anu. Thankfully, Anu helped me understand that it was not about what happened to me. it was about deeply understanding what had happened to Zain, and developing empathy for his pain and his circumstances while accepting our responsibility as his parents.
What Are The Implications For Your Customer/Employee Experience Efforts?
Empathy is central.
Yet, time after time, I come across Experience ‘teams’ full of Nadella’s – intelligent, hardworking, and self-centred. Folks who treated everything an engineering (process, technology) problem. These folks even when they think/speak ‘walking in the shoes of the customer/employee’ are doing nothing of the kind. Mostly they are projecting themselves (their mindset) into the shoes of their customers/employees. Worse, these folks are blind to this – so blind that when someone like me points this out it simply does not show up on their radar.
What’s missing is the Anu’s of this world – people who naturally feel/think and show up/operate in terms of the needs/suffering of the other – fellow human being.
Until the Nadella’s are teamed up with the Anu’s of this world, and listen – really listen, most of the experience design/improvement efforts will yield little of value.
Enough for today. I thank you for your listening and wish you the very best. Until the next time…