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Empathy And Innovation

by Miki Saxon

I read an article by Dev Patnaik that talked about the success of innovation with empathy vs. innovation without it. I found the examples used (Microsoft’s XBox and Zune) to be unimpressive in getting the point across, but it reminded me of two old (2006 and 2007) posts of mine.

Patnaik writes that “empathy is the ability to see the world through the eyes of another person. Unless new products or services connect with the lives of real people, design or marketing can’t do much to make them succeed.”

I’m always behind on trendy terms such as empathy, so I looked at the same issue through the lens of assumptions.

Here are both posts…

Assumptions are bad

Assumptions. They’re bad for your health, wealth, business and all human interactions. I’ve previously written about how they influence the workplace, but I saw a story this morning that really tickled me as proof of how costly assumptions are to businesses and entire industries.

The article is about how the bike industry found a way to revitalize a falling market with bikes that automatically shift gears. Here’s what caught my eye, “Shimano spent several years figuring out why ridership has decreased, and realized people wanted to ride for fun…The company was shocked to realize its efforts at making newer, more high-performance bikes weren’t winning over new riders.”

“We come to find out these people not only don’t want high performance, they don’t even care about it.”

Notice the final words, “they don’t even care about it.”

The assumption that high performance was critical came from people in the industry—people most likely to be classed as avid cyclists and to whom performance was a key issue, and that assumption was generalized to the entire population.

It’s always that way. Every time someone finds that their belief/attitude/assumption isn’t held by everyone, or at least by the specific group they’re focused upon, they are amazed and even shocked.

How many times have you read an article, such as the one above, and your reaction was, “Well, duh!” That was my reaction to the amazement expressed when performance didn’t matter to the general public.

“Duh,” is my reaction to my own assumptions when they get in the way of my human interactions.

And “Duh,” is my very silent reaction to many of the assumption-based management quandaries I deal with every day—also the managers’ reaction, not silent, once they identify it.

Assumptions And Innovation

Following up on my previous post about how the assumption that performance was the most critical buying issue in cycling helped flatten an industry, comes yet another example of how assumptions lead astray.

The new generation of game consoles from Sony and Microsoft focused on the brilliant graphics demanded by game enthusiasts, but Nintendo is creaming its competitors by looking past graphics and focusing on fun. “Jesse Sutton, interim president and chief executive officer of Majesco, says Nintendo is targeting its hardware at the fastest growing audience in the games business — “casual” gamers who are more interested in fun, simple games rather than the deeply immersive titles that most hard-core gamers prefer.”

Hmm, sounds similar to the people who want to have fun riding bikes.

The car industry is learning the same thing. First, when Honda’s Element and Toyota’s Scion, designed as inexpensive first cars for teens and 20-somethings, got snapped up by their parents, who wanted inexpensive, fun transpiration, instead of performance and mind- and wallet-numbing electronics.

That challenge is being upped again by India’s Tata Motors, which plans to bring out a $2500 car in 2008. And this isn’t just about lower income, emerging markets. “To automakers’ astonishment, cheap cars are also proving to be just as popular in established markets as they are in the developing world…The new generation of cheap cars will be sturdy and reliable and will appeal to Western consumers who want to spend money on things other than transport… The shift to cut-rate wheels is jarring for an industry that has fixated for at least a decade on premium cars…”

The same awakenings have happened/are happening in consumer products, such as soup and cleaning products.

Other industries are climbing on the bandwagon. Even software companies are recognizing that most of their customers aren’t twenty-something programmers and that they don’t want to “work under the hood,” they just want to do whatever it is that they bought the program to do.

What these stories have in common are the assumptions that guided product development came from industry/product aficionados—hard-core devotees who designed products for people like themselves—and ignored the rest of us.

Finally, companies are figuring out just how large the so-called casual market is, how much money it has to spend, and that it’s a giant market anywhere you look for it.

For managers, the lesson is to avoid assumption-myopia by building a team with different backgrounds, varied experience from different industries, and a solid generational mix.

Do that and you’ll have a lot more innovation outside the box.

In times of economic chaos such as now, it’s a wise company not only listens to its current customers, but also broadens its focus to include the “casual” part of its market.

Image credit: flickr

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