Customer-Centric Design: Got Empathy? Matthew E. May (How to Change the World) Aug 10, 2009 – We all know what our customers want. We’re confident that we understand the problem. We look at reams of marketing reports. We conduct the focus groups. We survey them. We have plenty of data. Guess what? It’s not enough. Data can only indicate facts. If we fail to descend into the field and take the long walk in the customer’s boots, if we don’t bother to look over their shoulder while they struggle with the problem, and if we take the customer’s word at face value, we can’t legitimately call our design strategy “customer centric.” Rarely do customers know what they need. So rarely can they tell you. So rarely does a great innovation come from arms-length market research. The solution? Learn to see. Live the customer’s life. Watch the problem in the context and environment within which it occurs. View it from every conceivable angle like a good artist does when attempting to “render the truth.” If you don’t, you’ll fail to properly frame the problem. You’ll fail to empathize with your customers. There goes deep understanding. There goes innovation with impact. The phrase in Japanese is genchi genbutsu (gen-chee-gen-boot-soo): go and see. Fully grasp the situation. See for yourself. Then, and only then, define the problem and design the appropriate solution. You have to play police detective and FBI profiler all at once. To do that, you need a deep dip in the customer or user experience. It’s a lot harder than it sounds, but there are at least three ways to gain real insight into the problem. And in today’s marketplace, all three are necessary. Observe—watch the customer. Designers at Whirlpool know that customers can’t always articulate the problem that needs solving, so they study their products as they’re used in the home. In a usability session involving a new refrigerator design, three separate cameras captured the difficulties in finding and replacing the water filter. Stop-action and slow-motion review of customer movement lead designers to the solution. Not only do Whirlpool designers watch and video-record the action in the kitchen, but they accompany technicians on service calls to gain insight into quality and dependability. Infiltrate—become the customer. When Harley-Davidson sales dropped in the mid-1980s, CEO Vaughn Beals directed his senior management team to attend biker rallies and go on all the big Harley rides. Vice president of design Willie Davidson, grandson of the founder, saw that every Harley had been customized. He took the modification ideas and adapted them to future designs—sculpting gas tanks, chopping the chassis, adding chrome, and painting flames. Collaborate—involve the customer. Intuit’s “Follow Me Home” program allows software designers to sit with the first-time user in his or her home or office. Designers learn what other programs reside on the person’s hard drive, how navigation between those various applications works or doesn’t work, and what paper and electronic sources of data the user pulls from to input into Intuit’s software. But they don’t stop there. They “co-create” and ask the user to essentially play designer. Incorporating many of the resulting customer ideas and configuration suggestions leads to the development of various targeted versions of financial software. Simple as it sounds, the best designs often come from just getting out more.