Innovation Begins with Empathy: Embracing Our Customers as the Heroes in Our Innovation Story.

Christy Hogan Hutchinson Innovation

Speaking at the R&D Innovation Summit this past February, I co-presented with one of our clients to share how gaining true empathy for the target audience radically changed the outcome of an innovation project.

I discussed how we used our narrative-based approach to design thinking to develop our “hero”. In this blog, I’d like to share why and how the empathy stage wields so much power in the innovation process.

Why invest in “empathy?”

To truly develop customer-centric innovation, you must change your perspective. The people you’re developing solutions for are, in fact, your innovation roadmap—not the tools or solutions that are created for them.

Of course, it’s important to know who your audience(s) are from a demographic standpoint. But understanding what drives their behaviors, how they make decisions, what they care about, the complexities of their world, et al, cannot be truly understood without spending time with your audience. If you start with that simple premise, it’s easier to shift your team or organization’s thinking—leaving behind preconceived notions based on their own assumptions and experiences, unlocking creative possibilities.

One way to get started—ethnography.

There are many types and methodologies of market research, but a classic technique to get started with any innovation initiative is basic ethnography—simply spend a day shadowing a member of your target audience. Conduct this technique with a “fresh set of eyes”. You’re not looking for an answer to your challenge or direction on which technology solution to employ. You’re simply observing, trying to walk in their shoes.

Start the morning observing:

Spend the morning hours simply observing. Ask simple questions aimed at understanding what they’re doing and why. Take furious and detailed notes about these observations. Watch body language and their surrounding environment. Be wary of making assumptions. Humans tend to insert their own worldviews into their observations. But the objective of this stage is mainly to experience the feelings of the person you’re observing.

Get to motivation by mid-day:

Spend an hour interviewing this person. This should feel conversational. Pre-prepared questions should be developed to help you understand all about their lives and how they make decisions. Additional questions should be added based on your notes from the morning observations. The root of your questions should be designed to answer the “why”.

Delve deeper in the afternoon/evening:

Now that you’ve built a rapport and have spent the greater portion of the day together, combine your observations with conversational engagement. For example, ask them how they would complete a task. Observe their behaviors, but have them verbalize what they’re doing, how they’re doing it and why.

Document everything the day after:

It’s important to document your learnings. At Magnani we recommend storytelling techniques such as user stories and personas to help others understand your ‘hero’ and their journey. I discuss this more in depth in my previous blog post.

Every innovation journey begins with a single user.

While we would not recommend basing decisions on one interview alone, it’s a great way to start understanding the importance of the empathy stage. It should also inform your broader research and market insight plan and the segments you need to dive into more deeply. But most importantly, spending a day building empathy with one of your users immediately fuels the generation of new ideas and provides a clearer lens through which to view the problem at hand.


Magnani is an experience design and strategy firm that crafts transformational digital experiences to delight users and deliver sustainable competitive market advantages for our clients.


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