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When spreadsheets don’t tell the full story: The role of empathy in innovation.

Deepu Asok
Deepu Asok
2 min read

It was 9 AM on a Friday morning and I was running late for my boarding time at the Chicago O’hare International Airport. After zig zagging through security clearance and a few unhurried travelers, I made it right before boarding time. I was flying to Florida for a human factors study as part of my job as a medical device product development engineer at Pfizer. It was my third study in one week, the ones before being at Chicago and Dallas.

I reached Florida and drove to the centre where the study was conducted. At the study location, there were patients waiting in the room ready to answer the questions we have prepared. We also had a few prototypes of a new device ready to be evaluated by the patients. The goal of a human factors study is to evaluate the user experience of the end users and uncover new insights regarding the problem we are trying to solve.

As I sat on the other side of a one-way mirror watching and listening to the patients sharing their struggles, a few tears escaped my eyes. It’s one of those moments when you realize that your work is not about products you make. It’s about people who use those products. Especially, when the products we make have the potential to literally change lives.

That’s when I had a realization. The process of design is incomplete without empathy. Unless you can truly empathize with the end user of your product, your design will always be incomplete. There is no spreadsheet model that can capture the rawness of human emotion. There is only one instrument that can capture that—our hearts.

When you are trying to make a better widget than your competitor, you may miss out this key element of human emotion. Great companies are ones who proactively structure their process of design in such as way as to include this core element of empathy. Compromising the needs of real people in favor of complex spreadsheet models and bureaucratic policies may seem like a smart move in the short run. But, in the long run, customers are smart enough to know the companies who have their best interest in mind.

By creating and honoring the element of empathy in the process of design, we can make sure that our product decisions are aligned with the best interests of the people we aim to serve.

As Dr. Prabhjot Singh, Director of Systems Design at the Earth Institute said, “We spend a lot time designing the bridge, but not enough time thinking about the people who are crossing it.”