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In Human Centered Innovation, Empathy is not Enough

0 posted by Insight

Innovation has never been more important, nor more challenging, as today's businesses face markets, technologies, and cultural landscapes of accelerating dynamism and complexity.

It’s no surprise then that approaches like Design Thinking have risen to prominence on their promise to supercharge creativity and reduce the uncertainty inherent in product development. At their best, these human-centered methodologies help build an empathic understanding of the consumer experience through techniques like ethnography and co-creation exercises. These are valuable tools to help develop more innovative and effective solutions by revealing consumers’ authentic practices, latent needs, and unarticulated pain points.

However, empathy alone only gets you so far. At their worst, these techniques can lead to naïve empiricism, stale ideas, and an over-reliance on consumers to drive the ideation process.

Being able to see the world through your consumers’ eyes should be an end result for all research, but it’s only a first step toward deeper insight and creative thinking. Empathy-building is a “bottom-up” approach that’s incomplete if not combined with a “top-down” analysis of the contexts in which consumers live, learn, and make choices. Narrowly practiced user-centeredness leaves unanswered important questions about how cultural and social factors shape needs, priorities, desires, beliefs, and practices.

Answering these questions is critical for brands seeking to stay ahead in markets and cultural landscapes that increasingly look like fast moving targets. Relevance, brand engagement, and competitive advantage are at stake if the systemic factors that shape consumers’ values and behaviors are ignored.

What’s needed is a holistic approach. Fusing empathy with social science’s conceptual tools and frameworks provides a scaffold to see beyond current needs and routines, to the socio-cultural processes and relationships that shape them. It is only through this bottom-up, top-down perspective that we can understand the principles and pathways that point to potential futures, and to fresh territories for breakthrough innovation.

By Aaron Frey, Senior Creative Associate.

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