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  • what customers can't tell you might be just whatyou need to develop successful new products.

    SPARK INNOVATIONTHROUGHEMPATHIC DESIGN

    BY D O R O T H Y LEONARD A N D JEFFREY F. RAYPORT

    102 ARTWORK BY BILL MAYER

  • A LMOST EVERY COMPANY COMPETES to some degree on the basis of continual

    Jx innovation. And to be commercially successful, new product and serviceideas must, of course, meet a real-or perceived-customer need. Hence thecurrent managerial mantras: "Get close to the customer" and "Listen to the voiceof the customer." The problem is, customers' ability to guide the development ofnew products and services is limited by their experience and their ability to imag-ine and describe possible innovations. How can companies identify needs that

    customers themselves may not recognize? How can designers develop ways tomeet those needs, if even in the course of extensive market research, customersnever mention their desires because they assume those desires can't he fulfilled?

    A set of techniques we call empathic design can help resolve those dilemmas.At its foundation is observation-watching consumers use products or services.But unlike in focus groups, usability laboratories, and other contexts of tradition-al market research, such observation is conducted in the customer's own environ-ment-in the course of normal, everyday routines. In such a context, researcherscan gain access to a host of information that is not accessible through otherobservation-oriented research methods.

    HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW November-December 1997

  • SPARK INNOVATION THROUGH EMPATHIC DESIGN

    The techniques of empathic design-gathering,analyzing, and applying information gleaned fromobservation in the field-are familiar to top engi-neering/design companies and to a few forward-thinking manufacturers, but they are not commonpractice. Nor are they taught in marketing courses,being more akin to anthropology than marketing

    Sometimes, customers are soaccusLomed to current conditionsthat thev don't think to ask fora new solution.science. In fact, few companies are set up to employempathie design,- the techniques require unusualcoUahorative skills that many organizations havenot developed. Market researchers generally usetext or numbers to spark ideas for new products,but empathic designers use visual information aswell. Traditional researchers are generally trainedto gather data in relative isolation from other disci-plines; empathic design demands creative interac-tions among members of an interdisciplinary team.

    Developing the expertise, however, is a worthyinvestment. Empathic design is a relatively low-cost, low-risk way to identify potentially criticalcustomer needs. It's an important source of newproduct ideas, and it has the potential to redirecta company's technological capahilities towardentirely new businesses.

    When Questions Don't Yield Answerswhen a product or service is well understood, tradi-tional marketing science provides amazingly so-phisticated ways to gain useful information frompotential customers and influence their purchasingdecisions. Consider how subtle are preferences ofsmell and sound, yet car manufacturers can designautomobile interiors to evoke the specific scent ofexpensive leather that U.S. buyers expect in a lux-ury vehicle. Nissan Design International testedmore than 90 samples of leather before selecting 3that U.S. noses preferred for the Infinity )-30. Simi-larly, manufacturers are adept at fine-tuning en-gines so that they make the preferred sounds associ-ated with surging power and swift acceleration.Harley-Davidson, in fact, has sued competitors thathave imitated the voices of its motors, which havebeen carefully adjusted to please its customers'

    ears. Customers can guide an auto or motorcyclemanufacturer in making even minute adjustmentsin its offering because they arc familiar with theproducts and have developed over time a finelyhoned set of desires and perceived needs. In fact, thedriving experience is so deeply ingrained that theycan re-create most of the needs they encounter

    while on the road even when theyare not actually in the driver's seat.

    The practices of traditional mar-keting science are also effective insituations where consumers are al-ready familiar with a proposed solu-tion to a problem hecause of theirexperiences with it in a differentcontext. Peel-away postage stampswere an innovation that customerscould comprehend because they had

    already encountered the light adhesives used inPost-it Notes and peel-away labels.

    But sometimes, customers are so accustomed tocurrent conditions that they don't think to ask fora new solution-even if they have real needs thatcould he addressed. Hahit tends to inure us to in-convenience; as consumers, we create "work-arounds" that become so familiar we may forgetthat we are being forced to behave in a less-than-optimal fashion-and thus we may be incapable oftelling market researchers what we really want.

    For example, when asked about an editing func-tion in a software package, one customer had nocomplaints-until she sat down to use the programin front of the observer. Then she realized that herwork was disrupted when the program did notautomatically wrap text around graphics while sheedited. Accustomed to working around the prob-lem, she had not mentioned it in earlier interviews.

    Market research is generally unhelpful when acompany has developed a new technological capa-bility that is not tied to a familiar consumer para-digm. If no current product exists in the marketthat embodies at least the most primitive form of

    Dorothy Leonard i.s the WiUiam J. Ahernathy Professorof Business Administration at tbe Harvard BusinessSchool in Boston. Massachusetts. Her teaching, research,and consulting focus on creativity, innovative knowl-edge management as a core capability, and new-productdevelopment. Her book Wellsprings of Knowledge:Building and Sustaining the Sources of Innovation waspuhlished in 199S by the Harvard Business School Press.Jeffrey F. Rayport is an associate professor of businessadministration at the Harvard Business School. His re-search focuses on the impact on new information tech-nologies on service-marketing strategies for informa-tion-intensive companies.

    104 HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW Niivember-Deccmber 1997

  • SPARK INNOVATION THROUGH EMPATHIC DESIGN

    a new product, consumers have no foundation onwhich to formulate their opinions. When radiotechnology was first introduced in the early twenti-eth century, it was used solely for transmittingMorse code and voice communication from pointto point. Only after David Sarnoff suggested in1915 that such technology could be better em-ployed in broadcasting news, music, and haseballgames was the "radio music box" born. Sarnoff hadput his knowledge of the technology together withwhat he found when he observed families gatheredin their homes to envision a totally different use forthe technology. No one had asked for broadcastingbecause they didn't know it was feasihle.

    So there are many reasons why standard tech-niques of inquiry rarely lead to truly novel productconcepts. It is extremely difficult to design an in-strument for market research that is amenable toquantitative analysis and also open-ended enoughto capture a customer's environment completely.Market researchers have to contend with respon-dents' tendency to try to please the inquirer by pro-viding expected answers, as well as their inclina-tion to avoid embarrassment by not revealingpractices they suspect might he deemed inappropri-ate. The people who design surveys, run focusgroups, and interview customers further cloud theresults by inadvertently - and inevitably - introduc-ing their own hiases into the questioning. When acustomer's needs are solicited in writing or throughconstrained dialogue, pummeled with statisticallogic, and delivered to product developers in com-pressed form, critical information may be missing.But why would observation be a better approach?

    What We Learn from ObservationWatching consumers has always yielded ohvious,but still tremendously valuable, basic information.Consider usability: Is the package difficult to open?Does the user have to resort to the manual, or areoperating principles clearly telegraphed by the de-sign? Are handles, knobs, and distances from thefloor designed ergonomically? Does the user hesi-tate or seem confused at any point? What unspokenand possibly false assumptions are guiding theuser's interaction with the product?

    You can easily get that sort of feedback by watch-ing people work with your products in usabilitylabs and by testing for various ergonomic require-ments. It is the additional information gained fromseeing your customers actually use your product orservice in their own physical environment thatmakes empathic design an imperative. Empathic-design techniques can yield at least five types of

    information that cannot be gathered through tradi-tional marketing or product research.

    Triggers of Use. What circumstances prompt peo-ple to use your product or service? Do your cus-tomers turn to your offering when, and in the way,you expected? If they don't, there may be an oppor-tunity for your company.

    Consider what Hewlett-Packard learned in theearly 1990s by observing users of the HP 95/100 LXseries of personal digital assistants (PDAs). Thecompany allied itself with Lotus Development Cor-poration to produce the PDA mainly because itsproduct developers knew that their "road warrior"consumers valued the computing power of Lotus1-2-3 spreadsheet software. But when HP's re-searchers watched customers actually using theproduct, they found that the personal-organizersoftware the company had also licensed from Lotuswas at least as important a trigger for using thePDA as the spreadsheet was.

    When the