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Design Thinking: Empathy Tops Data in Understanding Customer Behavior

December 28, 2018

Design thinking

We marvel at the pace of technological advancement these days. Managers would be mistaken, however, to underestimate the continued power and importance of achieving a deep understanding of human behavior. The most successful innovations hinge on the ability of managers to comprehend the needs, frustrations, and pain points of customers.

For this fundamental reason, design thinking’s human-centered approach to innovation will have a central place in many organizations moving forward, no matter the technologies they embrace and pioneer. Yes, Big Data, algorithms, and the like will help us understand customer behavior. However, data will not always tell us how and why people behave the way they do, or how people behave in ways that they are not even fully aware of.

The design thinking process begins with a complete immersion in the user experience and a development of empathy for the customer. By focusing on the human element, the tools and techniques of design thinking enable managers to appreciate the frustrations of their customers. Through that deep understanding of human behavior, organizations can develop innovative products and services that actually solve a real problem for customers.

What’s wrong with survey data?

Many firms apply analytical techniques to large datasets to analyze customer behavior. They conduct focus groups and large-scale surveys, for instance, or they assess likes on social media. Why might these techniques fail to produce a complete and accurate understanding of consumer needs and behavior? Unfortunately, as Margaret Mead suggested years ago, “What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things.”

The presence and influence of others around us causes us to describe our behaviors more inaccurately than what we normally do. Hence, traditional methods of understanding customers’ needs, such as surveying thousands of customers and dissecting the data in myriad ways, fall short.

To really gain a deep understanding of human behavior, managers need to move away from surveys and become ethnographers, putting themselves in the shoes of customers in their natural environments. They must assess how users interact with their products or services, as well as why they choose not to use or purchase them. Managers need to pay close attention to workarounds—the makeshift solutions that customers design to address their unmet needs.

Design thinkers watch what people do, rather than simply paying attention to what they say. The design thinking process employs the methods of anthropologists to gain empathy for the customer. Design thinkers observe people and interview them in their natural environments, and they even go so far as to “walk a mile” in the customer’s shoes at times.

Why we struggle to empathize

Unfortunately, people struggle to gain empathy for customers for three fundamental reasons:

  • We often have long-held assumptions about what customers want and need. These strongly held beliefs cloud our judgment and impede our attempt to learn about customer behavior.
  • We rush to solutions before we have conducted thorough research. As soon as we begin to see customer problems or frustrations, we immediately jump to solving that issue rather than learning deeply about the customer’s current experience.
  • Managers frame projects too narrowly, and thereby miss opportunities to learn about and enhance the complete customer experience.

How you ask the question matters. If you ask a highly specific question, you examine only that aspect of customer behavior and fail to notice other fundamental reasons why people are disappointed in your product or service. In short, many new product launches fail not because we fail to collect enough data about customers, but because we do a very poor job of learning about their actual experience, pain points, and desires.

Truly empathizing begins by observing your customer with a beginner’s mindset, paying careful attention and minimizing the urge to “see what you expect to see.” Observations are then coupled with interviews that do not begin with leading questions, but probe deeper into understanding customer behaviors and asking “why” when inconsistencies emerge between what is said and the behavior observed. When we gather the puzzle pieces first, then put the puzzle together, greater insights will be gleaned from understanding human behavior. These insights can result in transformative innovations that resolve customers’ frustrations, address their needs, and provide a product or service they desire, perhaps one they are not yet aware they need.

Lastly, when managers frame questions and projects too narrowly, they often fail to notice important aspects of customer behavior. Selective attention becomes a problem. We notice that which we have been directed to pay attention to, and we thereby miss elements of customer behavior and experience that are crucial to our company’s success.

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About The Author

Michael Roberto, DBA, is trustee professor of management and director of the Center for Program Innovation at Bryant University. He is the author of Unlocking Creativity (Wiley, January 2019). Lori Coakley, PhD, is a professor of management at Bryant University and a faculty fellow for Bryant’s Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership. She is an expert in organizational behavior, leadership, and strategic management. Coakley and Roberto are both certified facilitators in innovation and design thinking.

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    […] is when management, historically, has spent time on field research, actively soliciting input from customers and vendors. Another technique is the “trial balloon” approach: Pick a plausible […]

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