Do you feel your customers' pain?

'In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity," said Albert Einstein, and the world gives us plenty of opportunities. Recently, a very annoying situation on a flight to Europe gave me the opportunity to think about the rising importance of empathic design. Dealing successfully with your customers' annoyances requires adopting what we at my company call the "empathic point of view" (empathic POV).

What is the empathic POV? Empathy is understanding and sharing the feelings of another. When you take the empathic POV, you try to understand and experience things as users of your products and services do. You want to put yourself into your customers' shoes and do what they do, see what they see, and feel what they feel. Doing this lets you uncover bugs and scenarios that "suck".

It's even more important to take the empathic POV when designing for those with needs different from your own, be they disabled, elderly, vision-impaired, illiterate, foreign, very tall or obese.

Take a moment and ask yourself: how empathic are the products and services of your company? Do you take the empathic POV when you design new things?

Why is it important to take the emphatic POV? Taking the empathic POV makes us more aware of the needs of our customers, whether they have common needs or special needs. Empathy is a core human skill; we even have "mirror neurons" to help us empathise with others. The empathic POV shows respect for those who enjoy _ or suffer from _ the results of our work. When we design a new product, service or experience, we must think empathically to create good designs.

Empathic design considerations are increasingly relevant and important due to increased customer sophistication and choice. When faced with competing designs, customers vote with their wallets for solutions designed with them in mind.

Also, the ageing of many societies will require new empathic designs in many categories. The elderly will become a larger customer group. Many of these elderly customers will have free time and money but also different needs and wants from the young, and empathic design will be needed to help them face the physical and mental challenges of ageing.

How can you start taking the empathic POV? In every design project, be it for a product or service, be certain to take the empathic POV. Start by listing your typical users as well as any other groups with special needs who might be affected by your design. Then take the empathic POV for each of these groups.

Try to understand how users with needs different from your own interact with your design. Put yourself in the place of such customers. Consider all five senses to help understand how they will experience your product or service.

For example, if you're in charge of a public transport system to the airport, personally take the full trip carrying two big, bulky suitcases. Put yourself in a wheelchair and try to navigate the system as a disabled person. See how easy it is for foreigners to find the information they need in English. Record the bugs you find while taking the empathic POV and then fix those bugs to create better, more empathic designs that make the lives of your users easier and more enjoyable.

The danger of non-empathic design: When I stopped being a corporate banker and instead became an entrepreneur and university professor, one thing I gave up was travelling in business class. Those who fly business class when their company pays for it but squeeze into coach when buying their own ticket will know how difficult giving up this perk was. As long as trips in economy class seem, I've learned to bear them willingly if not cheerfully. But on my last trip to Europe, things were different.

Imagine booking, at a non-budget price, an economy-class flight with a premium airline with a reputation for good service and high standards. Imagine arriving at your seat only to find it's a window seat in the very last row. Imagine finding the fuselage curves into the space of the seat, forcing any normal-sized adult to sit in a contorted way.

Adding to the misery, the seat does not recline at all lest it interfere with the emergency exit slide. Once you've squeezed yourself into this seat, the person in front of you then fully reclines his, leaving only 25 centimetres between the seats for your head. Imagine being in this torture device for 12 long hours, and you will have a good idea of what non-empathic design is.

While every business must be profitable, the airline executive who decided to sell seats that are not fully functional and which do not provide enough room for even minimal comfort decided short-term profits took priority over customer satisfaction.

But what if the executive actually had to travel for 12 hours in this seat? What if he was assigned this lousy seat in every flight he took in the future? And what if he was not of average size but obese or very tall? Do you believe this executive would still choose a seating configuration with substandard seats?

Over the past two decades, I've been a loyal customer of this premium airline and not just because I used to handle its financial affairs and thus know many of its senior leaders. However, after this bad experience _ a defective video screen on the return flight was just the icing on the cake _ I resolved to try other, cheaper competitors in the future. Had this airline taken the empathic POV, it could have kept me as a loyal customer.


Dr Detlef Reis is the founding director and chief ideator of Thinkergy Limited (www.thinkergy.com), the ideation and innovation company in Asia. He is also a lecturer in business creativity and innovation leadership at Mahidol University's College of Management (www.cmmu.mahidol.ac.th). He can be reached at dr.d@thinkergy.com

About the author

columnist
Writer: Detlef Reis
Position: founding director of Thinkergy Limited