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To stay relevant in the digital era, most companies are considering design thinking, but continue to be immersed in a “Build it, and they will come” mindset. Often, due to a sense of urgency to play catch-up or disrupt the market, they skip empathy and define stages of design thinking and jump to ideation and build a prototype of the new solution.

Such companies fall into the trap, as they lack knowledge of the customer’s real problems, needs, and aspirations and unknowing sabotage their innovation effort and can lead both big and small organization down a sinkhole. The author, Vidya Priya Rao shares, warning signs and pitfalls of this disastrous approach, as well as tips for making the change for sustainable success.

In the race to beat stagnation and be more ‘agile and flat,’ many companies are adopting design thinking, with a goal to create better innovations, services, and improve quality of life.  After a survey by Design Council justifies all the intent, that divulged companies effectively using design outperformed the FTSE 100 by 200%, over 10 year period. Also, the 2016 Empathy Global Index published by Harvard Business Review sets innovative giants such as Facebook, Alphabet (Google), LinkedIn, and Netflix in the top four places.

When the CEO and senior leadership talks about design thinking, they are generally referring to two things. Firstly, they talk about focusing on the customer’s real needs and wants, and the significance of working closely with customers during the solution development process. Secondly, they talk about improving the organization’s ability to execute projects while dealing with problems that can be ambiguous; include multiple layers of cross-functional stakeholders with differing needs, expectations, and power dynamics; involve a high level of experimentation, and a high level of collaboration between people in diverse areas.

In a complex, dynamic, and uncertain world, where the customer has increasing amounts of information, and their demands and expectations and power are on the rise, these objectives are not wrong. To meet these lofty aspirations, the company invests in training employees with design steps and tools, configure a cross-functional team, encourage employees to “think outside the box,” create “innovation rooms” to carry out brainstorming sessions, build prototypes and so on.

Despite these initiatives, most end up being disappointed with the outcome of their design thinking experimentation, flirtation or implementation. Most often, the problem lies in their “build it, and they will come” mentality, urging them to shortcut the design process by skipping the empathy and the define stages.  The mindset may have worked in the past, but stands in the way of a creating a customer-centric, people-centric, design and innovation-led business.

 “Build it, and they will come” mindset – Is it a possibility or a fallacy?

“If you build it, they will come.” Perhaps, but most likely not…

The famous line in the 1989 flick Field of Dreams may have worked for its character, Kevin Costner. But, in my experience, such advice can prove perilous for most board members, entrepreneurs, innovators, and marketers, who assume that their ideas, product or service is so compelling that once they take it to the market, success is inevitable.

You may argue using the famous quote by Steve Jobs “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” as it justifies in some ways your “build it, and they will come” mindset, as you are addressing the customers need before they are even aware of them. However, there is a big catch.

Ideas by itself don’t transform into concrete innovation and give overnight market success. A great idea needs to solve a relevant problem. Also, without anybody to explore the idea and build on it, to create a compelling solution, it dies a natural death and doesn’t make the news. 

Hence, if your enterprise is on the cutting edge of technology or innovation, it is highly unlikely that your early adopters will recognize the true value it provides unless they relate their problem with the solution you provide. They might require education to drive awareness of the problem, and that a viable solution is available to get their necessary buy-in. Alternatively, require custom tweaks, to arrive at the true value. Or, ensure repetition to raise the inherent urgency to solve the problem and the solution to sink in.

That’s why to increase the odds of success, as entrepreneurs, innovators, and marketers, you must fight the urge to simply put your heads down and build a product to completion without engaging customers for vital feedback and guidance. You need to balance creativity with execution, customer’s viewpoint with business goals to facilitate the overall innovation equation.

Hence, you must continually ask yourselves, “Who are we making this product for? How can we confirm, if their problems/needs are being addressed? Does the customer know they have a problem? How could we make the solution more desirable or useful? What information should we have to create a desirable experience? Is the solution technically feasible? What is the business viability of the new solution?

Design thinking as a creative problem-solving approach has its very root in empathy and focuses on improving the customer’s lives and experiences, by ensuring people collaborate better, work smarter, and operate faster to provide new ideas, alternatives, and solutions, and deliver business results.

With a bias towards action, the design principles focus on human values, embrace ambiguity, prototyping, experimentation, user feedback, iteration and tolerance for failure, and serves as a powerful mindset to uncover hidden opportunities, to deliver leading-edge products, services, and processes. It enables people to show by doing things differently and come up with unexpectedly positive results, that one may not have seen if were following a ‘build it, and they will come’ or ‘business as usual perspective.’

For design thinkers, ensuring deep empathy for customers, setting the context by identifying a compelling problem to solve, may seem like obvious initial steps. However, companies immersed in the invention culture, often borrow from Kevin Costner’s movie “build it, and they will come” mentality.

What is the relevance of empathy and define stages?

Empathy is not about market research or Voice of Customer. Empathy is the ability to recognize the context from which customers visualize the marketplace/world, share their feelings and thoughts, experience the pains and frustrations they go through while trying to get the job done and understand why they demonstrate such behaviors when interacting with products/services.

However, just feeling the customer’s pain, even if the customer has not yet realized it, is not enough. Too many innovators, entrepreneurs, and marketers get this far but never get to the root cause and end-up masking the issue by providing a quick fix on the existing problem and build solutions that eventually nobody needs. Real empathy requires going beyond the quick-fix band-aid and move past stereotypical assumptions by investing in the actual cure, by peeling the layers of the problems. The define stage precisely does that by identifying the underlying root cause of the problem.

The consequence of skipping the Empathy and Define stages of design thinking is Ideation without a clear objective, and this is a big no-no. Why? The Ideation phase becomes less focused and meaningful as people are inclined towards issues that in their direct line of influence and vision, resulting in their inability to challenge the defined problem based on the evidence gathered and revisit the drawing board if required.

Without a deep interest to investigate to understand the human needs behind a problem, their motives, and what the truly value, and external factors and environment contributing to the problem, it becomes difficult to test assumption and evaluate concepts, ideas, and prototypes. There are no set evaluation criteria, and people get in the way with irrelevant or stupid questions, feedback becomes a matter of individual preferences and the team in the state of analysis paralysis and never arrive at real results.

The final outcome is people fail to generate, develop, refine and communicate the idea, and this will yield a circle and square -shaped prototypes while your customer needs triangles. You realize that you are chasing a dream to commercialize the solution, as it is not based on a true user need.  In fact, empathy, define, and ideation phases cannot be disassociated,  as all these steps need to work in sync until you can draft a solution.

The consequence of sidestepping the empathy and define stages of design thinking can range from product failures to the enterprise going out of business. To illustrate, the pitfalls, let’s consider a couple of real-life worst-case scenarios.

1) Hyperlocal delivery startups PepperTap raised investor funding over US$50 million, only to fail spectacularly in 2016, without a clear problem to solve

The Gurgaon-based Indian startup had raised over US$50 million, including a US$36 million in series B.

In the markets they served, in India, customers could place an order for grocery via phone and get it home delivered by the local grocerer within 30 minutes to few hours, without paying any convenience fee and often with a credit period of few days to a month. So, what was the problem PepperTap aimed to solve is unclear.

PepperTap like their other counterparts LocalBanya and GrocShop (which also failed) seem to have developed a product keeping themselves as customers in mind, someone who wanted to purchase grocery on the go using a fancy mobile app and have it home delivered. If they had bothered to get the feedback from the market, while you were evaluating the concept, it would have been flagged as unacceptable by customers, and they could have saved their time and the investor’s money for another initiative.

A greater focus of Empathy and Define would have surfaced other critical shortcomings – the need for large assortment, competitive prices, inventory management, and deep pockets to run the show. They also failed to recognize the deeply seated mindset (caused by other mobile and internet B2C businesses) in the consumer that purchasing online products would be cheaper, and in a lure to attract new customers they offered deep discounts and operated on a negative margin on every delivery. Also, when they offered deep discounts, the local grocers were buying in bulk, defeating their intent to acquire more customers. Midway of the project, they failed to weigh the scalability of the technology, and the application failed to meet the needs of the inquisitive new customers (lured by bargain prices).

The story of many more failed business entities would be similar to that of PepperTap, Amazon Fire Phone ignoring Empathy and Define and jumping to the Ideation stage.

2) Over-engineered Fire Phone, a smartphone launched by Amazon in 2014 that took a $170 million write-down, with unsold inventory

In a marketplace dominated by Android and Apple devices, Fire Phone arrived at the party 6-7 years late. An anomaly from an immensely successful company, self-destruction was embedded in Fire Phone, as the customer, they had in mind while building the phone is themselves, where it seemed the product development team fell in love with their creation by converting it into a glorified shopping basket and forgot the smartphone end user.

Priced at $649 without a service contract, or $199 with a service contract from AT&T, the bulky and heavy Fire was nondescript and lacked “wow” factors. Also, there was a privacy concern, where it could watch the user with its four cameras even in the dark, and it sucked battery life. Though the price was reduced four months after the launch to $449 without a service contract or 99 cents with a two-year contract, there were no takers. While there was umpteen number of avenues to procure an Apple or Android device, the Fire Phone was sold via Amazon website, and brick and mortar store Best Buy, and their telecom partner AT&T in the US.

It could not justifies its existence in terms of irresistible pricing or incredible features. At the Empathy and Define stage,  to avoid feature shocks, the product team could have segmented the customer base carefully, and not just by demographics (the traditional segment criterion) but identify different customer segments and their need from different versions of the Fire and the price points at which they would buy a version that met their expectations.

While Amazon could afford to swallow $170 million with the failure of Fire Phone, a lot of their other products have not been an enormous success and covers for this loss. Not many businesses can afford to do so.

What are the warning signs of this disastrous mentality?

To avoid disappointment with your design thinking initiatives and do timely course corrections, take a pause and check if any of these symptoms sound familiar?

At the start of a project:

  • Reliance on qualitative data – While one can’t deny the importance of qualitative data, but it can only tell one, what is happening. For real empathy, and find answers to “why” it’s essential to obtain valuable insights from quantitative data to understand customer’s needs and wants.
  • Jumping to a solution too quickly –  The leadership giving the go-ahead to such requests “We have our customer request to add 7 new features to the product. So let this be a part of the next release and be given as a value-added update to all customers.”
  • Quick group buy-in – A flurry of ideas in a post-it meeting, and a quick short-list of the “so-called” best idea by the group and staying very much in the moment by funding the safest, most evident or lowest-common denomination idea. The reasons for the skewed group consensus could be many – a kind of peer pressure, fear of having the opposing views being rejected, self-confidence issues.
  • Lured by alluring prototype – The senior leadership love the prototype and give the go-ahead to commercialization, without clarity of the problem its solving and the target market, and not provide an environment for disciplined collaboration to facilitate open feedback.
  • Leadership bias – Senior leaders, judge the team on the quantity and quality of ideas generated during the brainstorming session, and people feel uninvolved, insecure and confused at work.
  • Organization bias – A strong belief of the leadership is that the customers are unaware of what they want and can’t articulate it, so why to waste time on market research or empathize with them.

In the middle of the project:

  • Constant fight of the target market – as there was a lack of clarity whom this product is being designed for and the problem it intends to solve.
  • Pressure  to maintain numbers or take the lead – the senior leadership is under pressure to launch the product due to the need for immediate action (be the first to market, shareholder pressure, annual growth target and so on)
  • Test results after product launch – The response to the launch, made you realize that the assumptions you took before the launch about the target audience and why it matters to them are incorrect. The most significant issues were not just with the product, but with everything surrounding it.
  • Tight control – process mistakes  – the same planning, budgeting, and reviews are applied to the innovation project like the rest of business, derailing the progress of innovation as it becomes difficult to integrate caring and empathy in a robotic process.
  • Underestimating what it takes – the leadership and project team miscalculates the scale of investment required to achieve the transformation, or the organization does not possess the skills and competencies to execute.
  • Delay in decision making by senior leadership – due to lack of an innovation strategy there is often a delay in decision making. Or, due to management’s own belief, decisions made on guts, instead of facts, which later prove to be false.

5 Takeaways for Making the Change for Sustainable Success

To set your company apart and avoid becoming a case study like PepperTap and to act as a driving force it’s vital to influence others on the importance of the Empathy and Define stages. This prevents your company from falling victim to a passing fad, and bring to life these takeaways for making the desired change.

1) Remember! Empathy never sleeps

It’s easy to keep doing what you are doing and focusing on bringing in revenue without asking whether consumer attitudes are silently shifting. For example, when the world went digital, Kodak continued to focus on the true photographic medium, and when they did get serious in 2001, it was too late. Kodak could have possibly made a fortune if the senior leadership did not sit on the patented digital camera technology, build by a Steven Sasson, a young Kodak engineer for 21 years. Nokia’s mindset that the touchpad concept will not work and people will come to QWERTY keypads led to their demise. Blockbuster continued with the brick and mortar channel to rent videos, leaving Netflix to stream online videos.

In today’s rapidly changing world, once your customer has a good experience, regardless of industry, it becomes the new benchmark. To secure the future of the organization, you need to lay the basic foundation and framework for the new experience standard you aim to set. And, empathy is the starting point.

  • Stay alert and seek to understand the changing environment and its impact on the customer – it could be a drastic change in a business model, a move from analog to digital products, a shift from offline to online business. Having an innovation strategy in place, helps you identify hidden gem, like the invention by the young Kodak engineer, and bring a version of it to the market before your competitors.
  • There is a dearth of empathy-driven innovation in the world (there are lots of problems in search of solutions)
  • Don’t look for a great idea, but look at a relevant complex problem thrown up by a rapidly changing world
  • Gather customer feedback and iterate to validate the solution, before it’s too expensive and late to make the necessary amends.

2) Present yourself a mirror by achieving empathetic congruence with the customer=

Achieving empathetic congruence with the customer works primarily at three levels, namely:

  1. Non-Empathetic (Problematic State): The design thinker is in denial about the customer’s feelings and lost sight of what they value; and the impact of the negligence on the business.
  2. Empathetic (The Ideal State):  The design thinker understands customer’s real needs and wants and in is congruence with the target persona
  3. Over-Empathetic (Muddled-Up State): This state is bothersome, as the design thinker tends to focus entirely on the customer’s viewpoint while ignoring the technical feasibility and business viability in the mix.

To understand where you stand, take a pause and analyze what stage you are at, at the moment. Before ideating and prototyping the solution, ensure you have answers to these questions:

  • Does our customer(s) know they have a problem?
  • Who are we designing this product/service for? Can we describe who they are?
  • Is our idea/concept addressing a compelling problem or need for my target persona?
  • What does my target actually experience, and do they truly value?
  • What information should we have to create a desirable experience?

Building a story from the data you collect by answering these questions about your users and customers is like presenting a mirror to yourself. Taking a step back and making this investment will save you lots of time and heartache in the future.

3) Empathy-driven designs are more than just aesthetics and simplicity

Empathy-driven product or service design is not just about aesthetics and simplicity; the design tells a story of an intuitive and relevant resolution to the customer’s pain points and sustaining the experience to provide a continuous, valuable, and timeless solution. It is easy to understand the needs and wants of the target group, and integrated with the business goals for solution viability.

4) Empathy is not confined to users and customers. It’s vital to focus on the employee’s as well.

Empathy is not just for customers, but also for employees, partners,  and, other stakeholders. On one end it focuses on the customer for whom your people try to deliver creative solutions to their problems; and, on the other end provides support to employees and other stakeholders in creating those solutions.  So, at the workplace empathy is showing that you care for employees as human beings and respect their contributions, and recognize they have lives outside of work. The leadership needs to ensure that their concerns are addressed in decision making, and strike a balance between profits and people.

Employee experience and customer experience go hand in hand. Providing an engaging employee experience will help businesses succeed in attracting and retaining talented employees and is the necessary first step to provide exceptional customer experience. After all, it’s the employees who take care of the customers.

Hence, it is essential that empathy is understood well by all with the company, from the front-people who handle users or customers daily to those in the back-stage who don’t get to interact with them directly but support the front-end teams to deliver the desired experience. However, everyone forms a viewpoint of their customer, as this diverse understanding is crucial to becoming customer-centric.

5) Embed empathy and design mindset in your company culture

Re-engaging the human-side of the business to create a lasting change is not easy.  A bias for action and emphasis on design-doing requires serious commitment, resources, and investment from senior leadership to revamp the company culture to reach a critical mass of adoption within the business.

Truly acknowledging and addressing someone else’s feelings is hard. Hence, it’s essential to develop the design capabilities of not just the senior leadership, but the middle management and executives, and more importantly, there needs to be a rigor around it. It is not providing training and adrenaline high from all the fun and creative exercise to people who participate. It not to leave the participants high and dry and return to business-as-usual grind.

Hence, it’s essential to condense all the creativity to reimagine the business and create an actionable business plan, viable products or services, and so on. The executives and managers need to be taught to identify the day to day moments to drive the culture change through their behavior and internalize the new behaviors. This will enable your people to adopt design tools, process, and mindset to drive innovation.

Embedding empathy in the company culture will ensure a shared and intuitive vibe of the changing dynamics in the world. You become a part of the tribe and start thinking like the users and customers, and can anticipate what they are looking forward from you, get the courage to take risks, and passion for sticking with it and iterating till you get it right.

To explain this better, I am borrowing one example from an article on empathy by Jump Associates, written by Dev Patnaik, the people at Nike who design running shoes tend to be runners themselves, and don’t have to rely on market research, as they know first-hand the challenges that runners face. It increases their ability to deliver empathy-driven innovation.

By viewing the world from other’s perspective and not yours, it’s easier for you to walk miles ahead of the competition.

The article was first posted in Marketers Touchpoint blog.

By Vidya Priya Rao

About the author

Vidya Priya Rao (PhD), is the Founder and Director of Innovatus Marketers Touchpoint LLP, a customer experience, design thinking and marketing consulting firm based in Mumbai, India. She is a design thinking/service design thinking decoder and promotes a proven approach to build a design-led innovation culture. She is also a visiting faculty at leading B-Schools in India. She is an Executive, Marketing & Sales Coach, Trainer, and Keynote Speaker.

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