Empathy: the secret ingredient in innovation

Business solutions can be discovered by putting users at the centre of empathy maps

What makes a new business idea succeed? We know that only 10 per cent of new businesses survive, so the answer is both important and elusive.

The makers of the Segway personal transporter were confident their revolutionary technology would change the world. Sadly, it turned out that few people had a burning desire to spend thousands of dollars to travel at walking speed while looking like an eejit.

The Segway is a prime example of an invention that nobody needed.

A successful new idea is one that provides value. If it makes peoples' lives better, they will happily pay you a price that allows your business to survive and prosper. But, as Henry Ford famously observed: "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." People aren't very good at identifying the solutions that they need.


This is where empathy comes in. Very simply, empathy is the ability to see the world from someone else's point of view. An empathy-based approach to innovation can connect deeply with people's experience, identify unnamed problems and develop valuable solutions.

Empathy is inbuilt. Our brains are wired to mirror the emotions of others. But we filter our understanding through the biases we carry. It is a common innovation failing to assume you know what your customer wants. Truly understanding the perspective of another person requires deep listening and observing.

Human-centred design

The good news is that there are a number of ways of doing this, many developed by IDEO, the design agency that pioneered human-centred design. The starting point is to channel your inner four year old: be curious, be comfortable not knowing, keep it playful and ask “Why?” a lot.

The two basic ways of understanding someone’s behaviours, beliefs and problems are by asking and observing. When you interview someone, ask them to tell you a story.

Mark Campbell is the founder of Galway start-up Pocket Anatomy, which recently launched Anatomus. com – an innovative 3D map of the human body – to improve medical communication between doctors and patients. In the early stages, Campbell spent a lot of time with people who really needed his product – US medical students studying anatomy. These extreme users were time challenged, financially invested in their careers and preparing for a high-stakes exam that would shape their futures.

Mark used an IDEO technique – the unfocus group. Instead of showing users his prototype app, he got them to tell stories about how they studied, what materials they used, where they studied, what worked and what caused them frustration.

Another approach is to practice immersion. Put yourself into the context you want to understand. In the 1970s, a 26-year-old industrial designer, Patricia Moore, put on smeared glasses, ear plugs and uneven shoes to experience life as an 80-year-old woman. What she learned led her to redesign many everyday products, such as potato peelers, to be more inclusive.

Next step: create an empathy map. Put your user at the centre of the map and capture examples of what they say, do, think and feel. Highlight surprising insights, which are often tensions or contradictions. Finally, identify needs and pain points.

Now start inventing to meet this need, knowing you will be solving a problem that matters to people.

Rough sleepers

Emily Duffy is a student entrepreneur from Limerick. During transition year she spent time volunteering with homeless people. She identified the problem of people who choose to sleep rough rather than use a hostel. Our bias might lead us to dismiss these people for not taking the help offered. Duffy listened and learned that there are many reasons to avoid a hostel. For one, hostels don't accept pets, and people will sacrifice a lot for their best friend.

She designed a special sleeping bag for rough sleepers. Durable, warm, waterproof, hi-viz and fireproof, it even includes a headrest that doubles as storage for valuables. The Duffily baghas potential for other uses such as disaster relief and even leisure camping (who doesn't want to be warm and dry?).

Some people deliberately seek out extreme users, such as rough sleepers, in order to develop better solutions for mainstream markets. One type of extreme user is someone who is currently unable to engage with your idea. Maybe it’s too expensive or difficult to use.

Nike developed the FlyEase sneaker to be easy to get on and off after a request from Matthew Walzer, a teenager whose cerebral palsy made putting on hi-top sneakers impossible. The constraints of designing for specific needs can push you to innovative and exciting results. Three years after creating a one-off pair of sneakers for Walzer, Nike have just launched FlyEase as a mainstream line of products.

So try out your power of empathy? Observe, ask people their story, think about real problems. You might just uncover the next killer innovation.

Dr Rachel Hilliard is a senior lecturer in innovation management at the JE Cairnes School of Business and Economics, National University of Ireland Galway