Ask yourself this… Have you ever worked on a project, small or large, thrown your heart and soul into it, been convinced of its success, only to find out that frankly, no-one cares?
I’ve got a confession. I’ve done just that. And it ain’t pretty.
Why did it happen? Why was said project inherently flawed? Because we were creating something solely for ourselves. An agency and client team responding to a brief that had been imagined, and written by, none other than ourselves.
We all thought it was a good idea. We all thought our customers would like it. So we all went and did it. Like one big happy family.
Except for one thing, no-one bloody liked it.
Because we forgot about one teeny tiny thing. The customer.
The matriarch of the family was missing. And so it fell apart.
It’s like breaking your back to sell your customer a deep pan pizza, when all they really want is a calzone.
But how are you supposed to know that calzone is flavour of the month? That’s where Design Thinking comes in.
Start with the customer
A human centred approach is one, if not the, key principle of Design Thinking. And everyone claims they’re doing it.
But I’d challenge whether they really are.
It’s one thing considering the customer early on. Maybe you do some user research, understand the sort of stuff they like. And then forget all about them. Like a one hit wonder, so dedicated for the first single, then egos get in the way and the rest of the album is a flop.
Or maybe you make some wild assumptions about their motivations, based on the findings of some spurious data. But you never really know its validity for sure. Remember, assumption is the Mother of all… mistakes.
Or at worst, you’re just using the buzz words. Without substance.
Shame on you.
To truly embrace Design Thinking, you must have the customer ingrained in your every decision. Imagine them as the Big Brother audience, always watching. Don’t act without considering them. Or they will hang you out to dry.
Trust the customer
Design Thinking is about learning from the customer throughout the design process, and allowing their input to shape your output.
As a Design Thinker you have to let go of your preconceived ideas, shut your eyes, and fall backwards into their arms.
Trust the process … not the moment
It takes trust, and often leads us into a realm of uncertainty, but if you know you have your customer’s interests at the heart of the project, then you can have faith in arriving at a worthwhile outcome. Even if you can’t see that far ahead yet. And brace yourself as this is often the case.
The customer. The individual.
What springs to mind when you think of ‘the customer’? It’s not a particularly catchy title is it? It’s difficult to visualise them, let alone understand what pushes their very unique buttons.
That’s why we develop Personas, to bring to life said customers, and refer to them throughout the design process, like an old friend.
Oh Sue would hate that form, she’s far too busy with kids to fill out all those fields, she simply doesn’t have the time in the day.
Persona creation in a Service Design workshop at Pancentric
But are personas really cutting the mustard? Are we really getting under the skin of the user? Enough to successfully understand and anticipate their unique motivations and decisions? I’d suggest that in their simplest form, personas merely scratch the surface.
It’s time we spoke about empathy
Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling.
By creating hypothetical personas around the types of people that might be our customers, are we really putting ourselves in their shoes? Are we feeling what they’re feeling?
We think they’re married with 2 kids and a dog, but what’s life really like for them? How are the kids getting along at school? Is little Jimmy struggling because they just moved to the neighbourhood? And what impact does that have on his Mother, and her needs?
When I worked at Marks & Spencer’s we weren’t allowed to say ‘Have a nice day’ to customers because we didn’t know what our customers had planned that day. The assumption was that a 2 minute till transaction was not long enough to empathise with the customer, so better not to jump to conclusions about how nice their day ahead was likely to be.
But what if we could start to really understand what sort of person each of our customers were, and what sort of a day they might be having?
What if we could really see them, truly understand them, and feel the stress, joy, frustration, and love that they feel, when they feel it?
You have to develop an enlightened eye, where you are willing to see more deeply, more thoroughly.
If we had this deep level of empathy for our customers, then we could begin to design something that they really wanted.
And wouldn’t that be just grand.
Empathise. In person.
So first things first.
The absolute ideal would be to meet the customers, lot’s of them. And this should be the aim of every Design Thinking project.
These opportunities for observing customer behaviours can take many forms, from purely observational, to participatory. The list of research techniques is broad, and the appropriateness of each is heavily dependent on the individual project. But here’s a couple to whet your appetite;
This technique does what it says on the tin, but the success of an interview is heavily dependent on the approach of the interviewer.
Questions should be carefully crafted to coax the customer into a space where they feel free to be honest and open. The interviewer must also be able to improvise away from the script, and acknowledge if there is a tangent worth exploring.
Soft skills, of which empathy is just one, are vital for the success of customer interviews.
This is a technique that requires significant investment, but offers incredible insight into the life of the customer.
The researcher quite literally follows the participant as they go about their day. Prompting them to vocalise their actions, decisions and feelings as they go. Again the soft skills of the researcher are the most influential aspect over whether this research is likely to uncover valuable insight, or not.
The researcher must create a healthy rapport with the person being shadowed. If the participant does not feel comfortable, critical information could be missed.
Empathise. The best you can.
If you can’t get access to your customers because of time, budget or some other restraints, first try, try, and try again, then forgive yourself, it happens.
It doesn’t however mean that embracing an empathetic viewpoint is an impossible task. You should still strive to empathise with your customer, the best you can.
So here are some tools that, in the absence of customer contact, will help you do so:
The Pancentric Empathy Map canvas
This is a great exercise for putting yourself into the customer’s shoes. By imagining what the customer might be hearing, seeing, thinking and feeling, you begin to imagine what it might be like to be them.
Picture their work life, and their home life. What are they hearing from their peers? Who of your competitors are they seeing? What preoccupies their mind on the train journey to work? What are they thinking about as they drift off to sleep?
It doesn’t come close to having your customers in the room, but it goes some way to helping you empathise through the information you do know about them.
Body Storming is a form of prototyping, whereby you act out what it would be like to use the service or product.
You quite literally pretend to be the customer, or any one of the ‘actors’ interacting with your prototype, to get a feel for it in the context of its use.
By acting before understanding, we approach the possibility of learning in our bones the experience of another person
The prospect of acting something out may seem daunting, but it’s really just a case of running through the customer experience, in context. By imagining yourself as the customer, you are truly placing yourself in their shoes.
Accents are of course optional.
Age Simulation Suit
Finally, here’s an example of research that takes empathy to another level.
Age Simulation Suit used by Nicholls University students in the 'Take A Walk In My Shoes' project
The age simulation suit has been created for healthcare professionals to get a feel for what it is really like for their elderly patients.
It restricts your flexibility and dexterity, simulates different eye conditions, and reduces mobility. Conditions that it is hard to empathise with as an able bodied thirty something.
In research for my university dissertation on Graphic Design for the visually impaired, I visited the RNIB for a day’s immersion into what it was like to live with various conditions that affect your eyesight. I also spent the day wondering around Nottingham without my contact lenses in, to try to appreciate just how restrictive living with an uncorrectable visual impairment is.
Michele Hanson is cynical about the age simulation suit, and is in favour of an old fashioned chat with the elderly, which of course as I’ve discussed, will always outweigh any new fan-dangled technologies.
However I still rate the opportunity to experience something for yourself.
Perhaps because we are selfish creatures, but also because feelings and experiences are often too complex to put into words. I could never have anticipated quite how vulnerable I would feel walking along Nottingham High Street without my full sight. So I’d therefore suggest that someone would be best equipped to empathise with me, if they could experience it for themselves.
Design Thinking, Service Design, User Experience, Customer experience… the list of customer centric practices goes on, but they will all fail miserably without real empathy for the customer.
Only with true empathy will real customer insight be found, often from an unexpected tangent that would not have been surfaced without it.
Empathy is at the heart of design. Without the understanding of what others see, feel, and experience, design is a pointless task.
Dan Saffer discusses what I believe to be the semantics around what is more powerful, understanding, or empathy. But in the end, it is with both that we can truly get under the skin of the user.
It’s time to wear their hearts on our sleeves.
Is it Design Thinking, or Design Feeling?