Elsewhere we have discussed the mind of the design entrepreneur. The designerly mindset is based foremost on empathy, namely, the ability to put yourself into your customer’s/client’s/stakeholder’s shoes to understand problems from their perspective. A key trait of design entrepreneurs is cultivating the empathic mindset.

Simple consumer pain
Simple consumer pain https://images.app.goo.gl/3KG4jGg7j8Evtttz8

When you can do this, you can uncover their pains and problems (including some that they didn’t even know about), and to generate unexpected solutions (including ones that they had not thought of).

‘Empathic’ means having a sensitivity to other people’s emotions, pains, and frustrations.[i]

Traditional business management processes do not typically foster empathic engagement with customers. Design entrepreneurs take the opposite view to the manager’s data-driven analysis because empathy means a focus on the human angle.

Managers pay little attention to how to use customer co-creation and feedback to turn their new ideas into a business model that can be shared with a larger group.[ii]

Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All - Creativity

Couple the empathic mindset with your own confidence, and you have a winning formula. As the Kelley brothers put it, it is about creative confidence. It is about believing that you are the one who can make the difference, that you are the one who has an intentional design process, and that you are the one who can create solutions that create positive impact. When you understand and practise these principles, you will have faith in your own creative abilities and a process for transforming difficult challenges into opportunities for design.[iii]

What capacities do design entrepreneurs need? 

Empathy is made up of the following entrepreneurial mindsets. Empathic entrepreneurs have the capacities to:

Image of mindset gears
futsure health https://flic.kr/p/eww3Sx
  • *Understand real human needs, fears and desires. The entrepreneur/designer must have a deep empathy for what motivates people who make up the social or business world.
  • *Be relentlessly optimistic. Design thinking relies on creative confidence and self-effectuation – a belief that you have the tools and capacities to create change, no matter how wicked the problem or how pressured you are.
  • *Tolerate ambiguity. This means being comfortable with a problem-solving process that is liquid and open, and celebrating unexpected alternative solutions.[iv]
  • *Collaborate positively. Two plus two is greater than four. When great minds get together, the outputs are always stronger and more impactful than if each person worked on the problem alone. You use your own creativity, to be sure, but multiple creativities and perspectives strengthen the positive effect of the solution.
  • *Experiment joyfully. An experimental and explorative mindset is a seen as key to design thinking. Mistakes are a natural part of the process. Using the methods of hypothesis-driven entrepreneurship, you will have fun in failing and learning from the stumbles that you make.
  • *Serve the world. Empathy means being the servant of the customer. You do not design solutions on the basis of ‘build it and they will come’. Human-centred designers see the world, and all the opportunities to improve it, through a new and powerful lens.
  • *Immerse themselves in other peoples’ lives. The empathic mindset forces you to immerse yourself in another’s world and to leave behind your preconceptions. The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design states that ‘[e]mpathizing with the people you’re designing for is the best route to truly grasping the context and complexities of their lives. But most importantly, it keeps the people you’re designing for squarely grounded in the centre of your work.’[v]
  • *Have self-aware meta-cognition. Research has confirmed that some of us are more aware and have a better understanding of our own thought processes than others, and this is connected to the development of empathy. There is a ‘step-like’ pattern in empathy development and even in the neurobiological mechanisms associated with empathy.[vi]
  • *Visualise new scenarios. The empathic mindset is future oriented and seeks to improve an existing situation into a preferred one. Using intuition and vision, this means having the urge to challenge the norm and to boldly go where no one has gone before.[vii]

“Build it and they will come” the wrong direction

The market is flooded with products whose “build it and they will come” inventors hoping to guess consumers’ ever-changing needs. Some entrepreneurs begin with shiny new technology looking for a market–an innovation looking for a customer.  They lack the empathic mindset.

If you build it
Katie Taylor https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/6881256901

But that’s the wrong way around, for ultimately it is the consumer who makes the final judgement as to whether a product is successful or not.[viii] Research shows that customer co-creation or co-production (achieved through empathy) has a positive effect on the outcome of new production development because it results in a better fit to a customer’s preferences. That’s why letting customers define the critical design criteria has become so important in the innovation process.

The problem is that consumers themselves are sometimes uncertain about their actual needs, even for products and services they use often or desperately want. They are so accustomed to current solutions that they don’t ask for a new one.

They don’t know they want it until you show it to them

As Steve Jobs once said, ‘a lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.’[ix]

Here is an example: When radio was first invented, it was used to transmit Morse code!

Ship to shore morse code
Thomas Edison’s 1891 patent for a ship-to-shore wireless telegraph that used electrostatic induction

Not until broadcasting entrepreneurs came along did someone realize that the same technology could be used for news, music and baseball.

But nobody was asking for that. The bottom line is that customers only know what they have experienced. They cannot be expected to imagine what they do not know.[x]

In today’s age, designers must consider not only a product’s functions and features but also the customer’s emotions and experiences. That means entrepreneurs need to study stakeholder experiences systematically. Empathy is about consumer-centered design: designers must devise a solution that corresponds to the emotional aspects of using it.

How could one design heart rate monitors without applying empathic design to observe and record how consumers interact with pretotypes and prototypes? All of this must be fed back to designers.

What can we learn through the empathic mindset?

When we observe emphatically, obviously, we first see the superficial aspects of how users interact with features and functions. Is the packaging difficult to open? Are the knobs ergonomic? Does the user get flummoxed by the user manual? Just put together an IKEA kit set!

Attribution: ImageCreator – http://www.imagecreator.co.uk/ Original Author: Nick Youngson – http://www.nyphotographic.com/ Original Image: http://www.thebluediamondgallery.com/typewriter/o/observation.html

But the empathic mindset gives us deeper, or latent, meanings that are most important. That’s when the design entrepreneur can have true insight into the pains and frustrations of real-life individuals we call customers.

  • What need or pain has triggered them to use your new product or service?
  • Are they turning to you for the reasons you expected?
  • How does your product or service interact with the user environment or interface?
  • Does it fit the user’s peculiar routines or processes?

Maybe the customer takes your product and repurposes or redesigns it to meet their own desires (like spoilers on a car). Does your product or service have some unseen attributes that show the customer is emotionally invested in it (‘wait until I show my friends!’)?

Very interesting is when you observe the customer using your product for problems that you (or they) never even recognized (like wrestling an Ikea pack into the backseat of a car). The oft-repeated ‘delight the customer in unexpected ways’ is achieved when your product or service exceeds expectations.

As Leonard and Rayport say about empathy in the Harvard Business Review, ‘consider it a process of mining knowledge assets for new veins in innovation’.[xi]

In sum, designers need systematic methods to be able to study consumer experiences, and these methods must enable the empathic understanding of the consumer. Through the empathic mindset, designers get closer to the consumer through respectful curiosity, genuine understanding, and suspension of judgement.[xii]

Cover of Frederick, O'Connor, Kuratko (2019), Entrepreneurship Theory Process Practice (Melbourne: Cengage) Excerpted from Asia-Pacific edition of Entrepreneurship Theory Process Practice (Melbourne: Cengage, 2019)

[i] We use the word empathic rather than empathetic, which is a counterpoint to the word sympathetic. See WritingExplained (2016, August 24). Empathic vs. empathetic: What’s the difference? Retrieved from http://writingexplained.org/empathic-vs-empathetic-difference

[ii] See Stigliani, I. (2017, June 22). Design thinking – the skill every MBA student needs. Financial Times. Retrieved from https://www.ft.com/content/cbf70424-422a-11e7-82b6-896b95f30f58

[iii] Kelley & Kelley (2013). Creative confidence: Unleashing the creative potential within us all; Kelley & Kelley (2012). Reclaim your creative confidence; Kelley, T., & Kelley, D. (2012, December 1). Reclaim your creative confidence. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2012/12/reclaim-your-creative-confidence. If you want to be a practitioner, see Design Kit (2017). Facilitator’s guide for introducing human-centered design. Retrieved from https://www.coursetalk.com/providers/acumen/courses/design-kit-facilitators-guide-to-introducing-human-centered-design

[iv] Bolland, R. J., and Fred Collopy. Managing as Designing. Stanford University Press, 2004. http://bit.ly/2IlvCxt;

[v] IDEO. The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design, 2015. http://www.designkit.org/resources/1;

[vi] For more, see Hogan, Robert. “Development of an Empathy Scale.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 33, no. 3 (1969): 307–16. http://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fh0027580; Leonard, Dorothy, and Jeffrey F. Rayport. “Spark Innovation through Empathic Design.” Harvard Business Review 75 (1997): 102–115. https://cem.nd.edu/assets/171111/peter_zapf_spark_innovation_through_empathic_design.pdf; Lovell, Chris. “Empathic-Cognitive Development in Students of Counseling.” Journal of Adult Development 6, no. 4 (1999): 195–203. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A:1021432310030 ; Withell, Andrew. “Conceptualising, Evaluating and Enhancing a Design Thinking Curriculum Using a Critical Realist Perspective.” Thesis, Auckland University of Technology, 2016. http://aut.researchgateway.ac.nz/handle/10292/9916; Yardley, Susan L. “Response to Lovell: ‘Cognitive Development and Empathy.’” Journal of Adult Development 6, no. 4 (October 1, 1999): 227–29. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1021444612756;

[vii] Drews, Christiane. “Unleashing the Full Potential of Design Thinking as a Business Method.” Design Management Review 20, no. 3 (2009): 38–44. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1948-7169.2009.00020.x/full;  Junginger, Sabine. “Learning to Design: Giving Purpose to Heart, Hand and Mind.” Journal of Business Strategy 28, no. 4 (July 10, 2007): 59–65. https://doi.org/10.1108/02756660710760953.

[viii] Kleef, Ellen van, Hans C. M. van Trijp, and Pieternel Luning. “Consumer Research in the Early Stages of New Product Development: A Critical Review of Methods and Techniques.” Food Quality and Preference 16, no. 3 (April 1, 2005): 181–201. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodqual.2004.05.012.

[ix] Mui, C. (n.d.). Five dangerous lessons to learn from Steve Jobs. Retrieved April 14, 2018 from https://www.forbes.com/sites/chunkamui/2011/10/17/five-dangerous-lessons-to-learn-from-steve-jobs/

[x] Halseth, Greg, and Joanne Doddridge. “Children’s Cognitive Mapping: A Potential Tool for Neighbourhood Planning.” Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design 27, no. 4 (2000): 565–582. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1068/b2666; Kramer, Thomas. “The Effect of Preference Measurement on Preference Construction and Responses to Customized Offers.” Thesis, Stanford University, 2003; Luh, Ding-Bang, Chia-Hsiang Ma, Ming-Hsuan Hsieh, and Cheng-Yong Huang. “Using the Systematic Empathic Design Method for Customer-Centered Products Development.” Journal of Integrated Design and Process Science 16, no. 4 (January 1, 2012): 31–54. https://doi.org/10.3233/jid-2012-0002.

[xi] Leonard, Dorothy, and Jeffrey F. Rayport. “Spark Innovation through Empathic Design.” Harvard Business Review 75 (1997): 102–115. https://cem.nd.edu/assets/171111/peter_zapf_spark_innovation_through_empathic_design.pdf, p. 108.

[xii] McDonagh, D., & Thomas, J. (2010). Disability + relevant design: Empathic design strategies supporting more effective new product design outcomes. The Design Journal, 13, 180–98; McDonagh, D., Thomas, J., Chen, S., He, J., Hong, Y. S., Kim, Y., … & Pena-Mora, F. (2009). Empathic design research: Disability + relevant design. Paper presented at the 8th European Academy of Design Conference, The Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, Scotland.

Follow me
Latest posts by Dr Federico | Howard H Frederick (see all)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

entreVersity | Design Entrepreneurship

Re-imagining education for entrepreneurs through #DesignEntrepreneurship


Enjoy this blog? Help spread the word :-)

Visit Us
Follow Me
Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, the content on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Copyright Howard Frederick articles are all timestamped and protected by Blockchain.