two children walking arm in arm down a road
PHOTO: Annie Spratt

How well do you put yourself in your customer’s shoes?

Year in and year out, “innovation” ranks as one of the top corporate agenda items across all industries. Exactly what is being innovated varies based on the product, service, company culture, and more. But regardless of what is being innovated, over the past few years organizations have increasingly embraced design thinking as a tool to help improve outcomes.

I’ve previously suggested customer experience be part of the product development process. While this remains true, it’s not always feasible for “released” items. Many clients have found elements of design thinking can help in efforts to improve customer experience. Let’s look at design thinking overall and focus specifically on the "empathy" aspects to understand how this can help improve designing experiences.

Elements of Design Thinking

Design thinking is a comprehensive and well-known method that addresses the critical areas of who, what, how and why. There's a lot of variety in how the method is depicted, but the common framework is the empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test sequence.

design thinking

Many organizations have benefitted from the introduction of design thinking into the innovation process, and most report the focus on understanding who has a challenge results in the biggest impacts. 

Related Article: How to Walk the Empathy Talk

With Customer Experience, Actions Speak Louder Than Words 

Companies often include customer-first language in mission and vision statements, yet what’s delivered to the market far too often aligns more with the company capabilities than with customer needs. The old adage, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” certainly applies when looking at traditional customer service design. 

Based on my experience, few organizations use design thinking to improve experience outcomes. Case in point: as firms moved from call centers to omnichannel support centers, it seems the customer’s needs were not considered — these transitions are far too often missing empathy.

What would the customer experience be like if you designed from a customer’s perspective?

  • Is a call tree with eight options and two language choices a benefit to the customer? 
  • Does a chat-bot that requires inputting information before a customer can interact provide a benefit to the customer?
  • Do customers appreciate hearing “due to unexpected call volume hold times are longer than normal” when they initiate contact?

Related Article: Your Customer Experience Won't Shine Without Empathy

Design Thinking and the Power of Empathy

While there are many methodologies that fall under the problem solving umbrella, design thinking is the only one that includes empathy.

Design thinking’s unique focus on empathy helps businesses frame or re-frame a problem from the perspective of the customer. By framing problems from the customer’s perspective, firms often find breakthroughs, because it aligns ideas and prototypes with the factors most important to the end-user. Empathy helps firms put down the hammer and consider what it’s like to be the nail.

The reframing from a customer focus at the very outset of problem solving is what makes design thinking powerful. For the empathy aspect of design thinking to be effective, it requires understanding latent needs, emotions and feelings of customers — things that are rarely obvious with surface-level analysis. 

Businesses can use a variety of techniques to understand customer needs and motivations. A frequently used technique is contextual inquiry. By immersing yourself in a customer's physical environment, you gain deeper personal understanding of the issues, needs and challenges involved.

empathy mapping

A customer empathy map can be very helpful in organizing and categorizing customer needs. Typically firms focus on what customers say they need. But looking deeper into feelings, actions and thoughts often yields insight that has an outsized impact on perception of the experience.

For example, GE Healthcare redesigned MRIs for children after an engineer observed the fear and anxiety children had about the process. The fear was so great that 80 percent of children had to be sedated for the procedure. While non-invasive, the huge machine, the noise and the overall environment was terrifying. Seeing things from a child’s perspective, simple changes were made and reframed the MRI experience as an adventure, something every child loves. As a result of changes to the experience, sedation rates fell to less than 1 percent and patient satisfaction measures jumped to over 90 percent.

By applying empathy to customer experience design, major increases in customer satisfaction can be realized with little investment required. Organizations with a strong focus on empathy and with feedback mechanisms in place to ensure implementation remains aligned with customer needs outperform firms that use other methods to define problems and innovate solutions.

Related Article: How Design Thinking Can Help Improve Your Organization's Customer Experience

Iteration Is the Name of the Empathy Game

Tools and theory are nice, yet most organizations have a bias towards action and accomplishments. Good news! A core philosophy of design thinking is a bias towards action. Empathy is the starting point, with subsequent actions focused on building and testing prototypes. Each prototype is tested against understandings gained from customers, and refinements made. Note, refinements may be made to either your understanding of customers or to the prototype solution, regardless of whether there is benefit in “cycles of learning.” 

The first attempt at a solution is seldom correct. It's good practice to monitor customer experiences to ensure ongoing alignment with customer needs. After all, customer needs continuously change — using a “set it and forget it” approach is a losing proposition.

interaction design

Related Article: Looking for Your Next Big Idea? Ask Your Customers – And Really Listen

Improve Your Design Experience Method

How can you use design thinking to improve experience? There are many tools, technique and methods available to develop ideas, prototypes and implement solutions. The critical element is connecting with customers' latent needs. The famous Steven Covey quote is most fitting, “If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.”

Ask these questions:

  • When is the last time we observed customers in their environment?
  • Do we know what our customers are feeling and what they do? Do we go beyond what they do to understand latent needs?
  • What would be possible if we got into the minds of our customers?

All it takes is a small investment in time and effort for a pay off of better insight and better experiences.