Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another being is experiencing from within that being's frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. Putting it in the organization’s context, we are simply trying to go beyond what the customer is saying to discover his unarticulated needs. The importance of this discovery cannot be stressed enough looking at the challenges faced by organizations today in terms of improving the success rate of their new products and services.


The world's great design-driven companies don't have to ask customers what they want, because they already know. The most innovative companies build this kind of empathy into their daily business. They know exactly who their customers are, they spend time talking with them and they think long and hard about what the customers say. They walk the aisles of their own stores, as Costco CEO W. Craig Jelinek does every week, to feel what their customers feel.

Empathy is not the result of traditional market research with its quantitative studies but something that demands that you live the life of your users and hear what they are saying, even if their interests and values are different from yours. The goal from the several research efforts at Ziba, a design firm based out of United States, is not to ask customers what should be designed but to gain insight, absorb it, and translate it into a language better understood by their clients. Belinda Parmar, CEO of Lady Geek, an advocacy agency, refutes the idea that empathy is a quality to be consigned to the HR department, and instead challenges brands and businesses to embed empathy into the heart of their strategy. Empathy is profitable as evaluated in a research done by Lady Geek, which found that L’Oréal sales agents who had empathy, for example, outsold those who didn’t by $100,000 a year.

In short, the companies that get innovation right, again and again, are the ones that feel what their customers feel. That is true user-centered innovation, and it's available to anyone who makes empathy a top priority.

Empathy at GE

EmpathyOne classic example of Empathy is of Doug Dietz, who was an ordinary employee at GE Healthcare. He decided to dig into the user experience of the technology he was creating for MRI and CT machines. He went beyond the look and functions to the experience being created. He found an extreme need while focusing on the experience from children who were getting frequently terrified by the idea of lying still and alone in the midst of a huge and noisy equipment. Doug put together a team of people on his own who cared deeply about the issue and with some paint, scents, lights and a little imagination, turned the scan rooms into adventures: one where the room was an ocean and the scanner a submarine, another where the scanner becomes a tent in a camping experience and yet another modeled around the theme of Pirates of the Caribbean.

Transforming healthcare for children and their families: Doug Dietz at TEDx 2012

The above not only helped to alleviate the fear from children but became such an engaging experience for them that GE came up with a whole range of such adventure series scanners making them hugely popular with kids, hospitals as well as doctors. All of this was possible because Doug was able to look beyond the current solution and understand the experience of the customer (in this case children) while getting the job done. What can we learn from Doug’s experience that can really go a long way in becoming a master at developing empathy?

Practicing Empathy

Practicing EmpathyThere are two ways in which one can look at and practice empathy namely by stepping into the shoes of a customer and experiencing his pains and frustrations and the other one is using a technique called as Ethnography.

Behave like the customer

Here are some tips that will help to develop empathy while trying to step into the shoes of a customer.


Ethnography is defined as a descriptive study of a particular human society; based on fieldwork the ethnographer lives among the people who are the subject of study for a long period, learning the local language and participating in everyday life while striving to maintain a degree of objective detachment, like a fly on the wall.

EthnographySwaraj Mazda, an automobile company based in Chandigarh, India observed their tractor customers in the rural villages in the early 90s. They discovered that the tractor was also used as a transportation mechanism for the village workers between their farm and home where most people sat on the fender (guard over the wheel that is positioned to block the splashing of water or mud). The company used this insight to re-design the fender in order to make it stronger to accommodate the weight of people. Swaraj Mazda not only garnered loyalty of owners by solving their unstated need but also captured a significant market share in the North.

Best Buy, a leading consumer electronics retailer in the United States, wanted to explore the viability of expanding its selection to include health and fitness departments within its stores particularly appealing to female shoppers. They conducted a series of in-home buddy groups with female shoppers who had recently purchased fitness equipment with a goal to understand the product research and decision-making processes as well as to identify the triggers for investing in home fitness equipment. The result was consumer expectations about the integration of consumer electronics with fitness equipment, as well as feedback on health and fitness impulse purchases, that helped to guide initial product selection within those stores.

If we are to keep our businesses relevant and our consumers happy, we must embrace empathy and let it be the force that drives us forward. These ways of practicing empathy, namely becoming a customer and ethnography, described above can go a long way in driving behavior change as mentioned earlier creating that early momentum for individuals in an organization towards their journey on innovation.

This is Part 2 in a series of blogs on Seven Habits of Innovators. We will discuss about the second habit Thing Beyond Product Innovation in the next part