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Wish your users Happy Valentine’s Day!

Valentine’s Day is about celebrating people we care about. It seems like a good holiday to focus on increasing our empathy and compassion for our customers and our users. Here are a few perspectives on why empathy is good for innovation and success as well as thoughts on cultivating compassion.

Dana Chisnell makes her point concisely when she says: “Want your users to fall in love with your designs? Fall in love with your users.” In “Beyond Frustration: Three levels of happy design,” she showcases how the designs of several companies show their love for their users by focusing on mindfulness, flow, and meaning. She also shows an example of how not considering these qualities results in an unhappy experience.

Don Norman in 2002 wrote in “Emotion & Design: Attractive things work better“:

“Affect and cognition can both be considered information processing systems, but with different functions and operating parameters. The affective system is judgmental, assigning positive and negative valence to the environment rapidly and efficiently. The cognitive system interprets and makes sense of the world. Each system impacts the other: some emotions — affective states — are driven by cognition, and cognition is impacted by affect.”

Norman focuses on the aesthetic in much of his discussion. Since his book Emotional Design was published in 2004, much has changed in how we interact with technology and with each other through technology. An even deeper empathy can helps us really meet our users as humans first and, in turn, ensure greater success in our designs. This isn’t about trying to be their buddy, which can backfire, but about really caring about the business relationship you have with users and how you can meet their real needs. Chisnell’s call to love our users is about rethinking design at a very fundamental and human level.

Dev Patnaik’s discusses how empathy leads to innovation and greater success in “Innovation Starts with Empathy.” He notes that although humans are emotional creatures, we run businesses as if they can be driven by pure reason and without emotion. As Jacob Marley pointed out Scrooge “Business!! Mankind was my business! Their common welfare was my business!” Companies that relate to their customers as people find greater opportunities to succeed. Failing to be empathetic can actually weaken a company’s effectiveness. Patnaik argues that a deeper understanding of who users are as people leads to a compassionate attitude that results in more innovation. He shares two stories demonstrating how observing actual people changed the attitudes of executives toward their customers. In the case of IBM, that empathy may well have saved the company and ushered in an era of innovation.

Consider a few further examples of how businesses that have demonstrated empathy achieve success while those failing to be compassionate have paid a high cost. The most complete, now textbook cases are the contrast between Ford’s decision not to correct flaws in the Pinto’s gas tank design that resulted in many deaths and injury  and Johnson & Johnson handling of the tragedy when Tylenol was laced with poison resulting in the death of seven people. At the time of each company’s crisis, Ford’s decision was coldly rationale. Johnson & Johnson was compassionate and went beyond what was required for legal or business standards. If you lived through these events, you may already recall exactly how the responses of these companies affected how you thought about them. History revealed longer term effects of their responses on public perception, trust, and willingness to do business with these companies. In Ford’s case, recovering from the cost of a perceived lack of compassion took years and far exceeded any savings calculated in their initial analysis. Johnson & Johnson, while experiencing an initial dip in sales of Tylenol, gained considerable market good will and a relatively quick restoration of their market share.

OXO products is an example of how empathy led to innovation. Founder Sam Farber noticed how arthritis made using typical kitchen tools like a vegetable peeler much harder for his wife. He saw an opportunity to redesign tools that had been largely unchanged since their creation and make them better for people to use. OXO continues to let observations and understanding of the real problems user face drive innovation.
Photo of two hands held to form a heart outline

We need infuse our work with empathy. All user research is observing real people on their terms and in their world. However, we have a tradition of turning those real people into data for easy consumption. Addressing a low corporate emotional IQ requires a change to our fundamental approaches to understanding users.

While it’s reasonable that we need to collect information about our markets and users, it’s not enough to share only abstract data and demographics. We should avoid reporting in a way that strips out the humanity of the people we serve. I’ve shared recently small changes that create a more humane vocabulary when discussing usability test participants. Our customers and users are people, not demographics.

Another way to share information about the humans who use our products is storytelling. Whitney Quesenbery and Kevin Brooks assert in their book “Storytelling for User Experience: Crafting stories for better design” that the ancient and very human practice of storytelling puts “a human face on analytic data, communicate design ideas, encourage collaboration and innovation, and create a sense of shared history and purpose.” We retain the real benefit of the data, and enrich it with the emotional, human perspectives.

While we may not be expected to send each user a box of chocolates and a heart-decorated card, Valentine’s Day is a good time to start thinking about how to make our practices and our companies more empathetic.

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