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Boost the Invention Development with Empathic Design

In the course of the twentieth century, every product and service used to come, primarily, to introduce new things through the invention development. But nowadays, there is a growing market tendency for creating new products which focus on solving customers’ problems and meeting their needs. And it doesn’t matter whether the needs and problems are real or perceived.

In order to meet consumers’ requirements, companies use the “Voice of the customer” approach that supposedly allows them to “know” what people need and expedite the invention development and commercialization process. But, there might be an overestimation of consumer’s ability to guide the process of product and service development. Oftentimes, they can’t recognize their needs because people simply don’t imagine that those needs can be met. To a large extent, people lack the experience and the understanding of what is possible in the field of innovation.

Then how can the developers identify those needs and problems if the consumers themselves are unable to think of and convey them? Even during the direct discussion or interviews, focus group surveys, and other popular market research techniques, respondents rarely utter their desires, because they believe they can’t be fulfilled.

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Empathic Design

Applying an empathic design strategy can help solve those issues. This strategy is based on observation techniques that include collection, analysis, and application of the information gathered from observing consumers in their everyday environment. Watching people use products and services in their familiar setup, gives a unique and much wider perspective of what their needs and problems are.

Empathic design is not a common practice yet, though it complements other market research techniques tremendously. Traditionally, market researchers use numbers from conducted surveys to identify ideas for a new product or service. That often leads to meeting a perceived, or biased, customer’s need. Empathic designers, on the other hand, use the survey results together with visual data. That allows pinpointing the exact need or problem based on the sensible information gathered on the field.


Collaborative teamwork

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Empathic design requires experts with different professional backgrounds and with a set of collaborative skills working together as a team during the invention development process. For instance, in one particular project that our new product development company had worked on, our marketing team had an essential and valuable input into the product’s success. After our engineers had built an invention prototype from the materials they intended, the marketing group pointed out that those materials were not very smooth to the touch. Most likely, the end-users wouldn’t enjoy holding it. Our marketing team gathered that information from observing people using products made of those materials. Therefore, we implemented changes to the material and tweaked the design accordingly. Now the product not only had great performance characteristics but also was invited to touch and hold.

But not every company has that asset, because the empathic design is not taught in marketing. But it’s worth investing in the development of that type of expertise. Firstly, because the empathic design is a relatively low-cost technique. And secondly, it brings high results in identifying actual consumer’s problems and inventing a creative solution for them. It is an expanded source of innovative ideas, which creates great potential for product success, as well as for the development of the technological capabilities of the company.

Combining both the traditional and observation approaches can help improve the product’s value and viability

Traditional market research is a great tool for obtaining necessary information to influence consumers’ purchasing decisions and upgrading already existing products and services and it needs to be done during the invention development process. In a usability lab setting or from the group survey you can gather data on ergonomics, functionality, and such.

However, when it comes to new inventions, using only that approach can be limiting. For example, when the company expands their capabilities and creates a completely new product, then consumers have no reference to which they can compare it and express their opinions about. In that case, popular market research techniques don’t bring much practical feedback. But observing your product being used by customers in their own familiar environment adds much more detailed and useful information.

 Five types of information
empathic design provide


Motivation for use.

Interestingly enough, many people begin to use products or services, not in the circumstances the company intends or expects. As an example, the brand manager for spray-on cooking oil observed how his neighbor applied it on the bottom of his lawnmower. When asked why a man answered that the oil kept cut grass from sticking to his mower’s bottom and was lawn-friendly. That kind of observation may open new ways of developing your product and for entering a new market.


Product use in the customer’s environment.

Watching how the customers use your product in their homes or offices can give you many useful insights into your product’s functionality and opportunities for future upgrades during the invention development process. If you developed a software program, then the best way to make sure that it works perfectly is to observe it running on the customer’s laptop. That will allow you to see how your software complements or interferes with other programs on the user’s computer. Also, you can identify the user-friendliness of your product by watching your customer’s body language and their overall attitude.

Watching how the customers use your product in their homes or offices can give you many useful insights into your product’s functionality and opportunities for future upgrades during the invention development process. If you developed a software program, then the best way to make sure that it works perfectly is to observe it running on the customer’s laptop. That will allow you to see how your software complements or interferes with other programs on the user’s computer. Also, you can identify the user-friendliness of your product by watching your customer’s body language and their overall attitude.


Custom product use.

There are lots of examples when people use products for purposes different from the intended ones, thus creating innovation opportunities for production companies. That happened with Play-Doh, now popular modelling clay for kids. Originally, it was a wall cleaning product made by the Kutol soap company. But one day, a teacher from a nursery school, and also a relative of the company’s head of that time, decided to use the product in her art class for making Christmas ornaments. She observed how kids easily worked with it and enjoyed using it. The production company removed the compound’s cleanser, added bright colors and fresh almond scent. Since then, the Play-Doh has been a successful product worldwide and saved the company from bankruptcy.


Product’s intangible features.

We can observe the unseen characteristics of a product or service from consumers’ emotional reaction provoked by the smell, sound, touch, etc. The smell of high quality leather is often associated with luxury. That is why Nissan tested over 90 leather types to choose only three that most Americans linked to luxury cars. Same is true for the Hyatt Hotels. Since 2007, they have been using their signature scent that customers now recognize. They’ve established an emotional connection to this scent through the pleasant experience and the hotel observed it over the years. That enhanced guests’ loyalty to the Hyatt brand, which still keeps it one of the most popular hotel chains in the US.


Unexpressed needs.

Sometimes consumers can’t express their needs and problems because they don’t know that it is possible to solve them. Moreover, they may not even perceive them as problems because they’re so accustomed to the way the product or service has been. Watching your future or existing customers encountering those problems provides a wide range of beneficial possibilities for growth and innovation during the invention development process.

For example, a grocery store in Hong Kong videotaped customers while they were shopping. The store had fresh produce as the first section, then dairy and meat, and the packaged food was in the last aisle. The observation team tracked customers as they routinely moved along the aisles. They noticed that by the time customers got to the section with packaged food, they had to re-organize their shopping cart not to damage the fresh produce. It didn’t look like they saw that as an issue, they just rearranged it. That observation showed what changes in the store’s layout should be done to improve customers’ experience. Additionally, it provided an opportunity for the competitive edge of that particular store.

Five steps of the empathic design process during the invention development


Observation.

The observation stage includes watching all types of people depending on the nature of your research. They can be your current customers, target audience, customers of other companies, or a group of people who perform one task. They should be observed in their familiar environment that promotes regular behavior patterns. It is a fact that many people tend to get stressed and reserved when put into new and foreign circumstances. Thus, watching them following their normal routine and expressing themselves as they usually do will provide much accurate information.

For this step, it is better to send a team of experts from different fields. Each having a unique way of looking at things, they will be able to gather data from different points of knowledge and perspective. The goal of this research is to determine customers’ needs or problems that they are unable to articulate. Therefore, the team should include one expert in behavioral observation and another professional with knowledge about the company’s technical capabilities.


Record data.

Making notes during observation is not sufficient. And because this approach includes mostly watching the way customers engage with the product or service and behave towards it, it’s best to record the process. Fortunately, present times provide a variety of technological ways to do it.

Using smartphones, drones, photo and video cameras helps to collect a substantial amount of data. Still and motion pictures are now capable of capturing very subtle emotional responses and body language. During the analysis those details can deliver valuable information in abundance.

Also, observers can ask open-minded and simple questions when they want to clarify what they see. But the main data source comes from sensory, visual, and auditory data.


Data review and analysis.

Upon collecting information on the field, the observation team shares and reviews it together with other members of the company. Adding fresh eyes and minds, more view points, and expertise will ensure qualitative analysis of the gathered data. It will also help identify every possible problem or need their customers might have.


Brainstorming.

After analyzing the data and determining customer’s problems, it’s time to create solutions. Brainstorming is an integral part of any kind of innovative development. This step implies turning observation results into visual and graphic renditions of possible solutions. Brainstorming sessions can go in different formats, depending on the team and the problem at hand. The use of brainstorming materials and techniques is unique to every company. So, whether you choose regular or smart whiteboards, sophisticated gadgets, or just simple pen and paper, it is completely up to you. As long as it contributes to creative thinking and problem solving.


Building prototypes.

Prototyping plays a significant role in gathering information and receiving customers’ feedback. It is true not only for the product development as a whole, but for the empathic design process as well. Physical models clarify the concept of a new product idea. They also visually explain how the product or service should look and work.

Prototypes have different purposes. Depending on the goal your team sets for the prototype, you may need one or few of them. If you only need to present how the product looks as a new refined solution, then one mock-up model will be enough. But if the solution for the user’s problem is in the functionality aspect, then you’ll need to make a proof-of-concept prototype. Or you can combine the two into one functional prototype.

Learn more about prototypes and their use here.

In addition, simulations can be very useful prototypes as well. The technologies nowadays give almost unlimited possibilities to what computers can create. But it isn’t always necessary to make high-tech simulations. Role-playing, as a form of simulation, may work better in certain situations. The young designers from Interval Research Corporation conducted a play role simulation when developing the next generation of electronic remote controllers taking into account old people. They attached weights to their legs and arms, wore fogged glasses, and gloves. Using the prototype, they tested whether the elderly would be able to use remotes or not. That experience provided insights into useful design modifications, which they wouldn’t obtain otherwise.


 Paradigm Shift in Invention Development

For the last decade, and especially in the past couple of years, we’ve seen accelerated development in innovation and the approach to invention development process. Empathic design supports the idea of “Walking in the customer’s shoes” but just takes it a few steps further. Instead of waiting for the consumers to ask for a new product or service, this technique allows companies to be ahead of the game. Moreover, empathic design facilitates creative approach to innovation. By observing and noticing the problems and needs that people can’t always see on their own, let alone convey them, you can bring unique solutions and pioneer the invention of something that no one can even think of today.


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