Beyond empathy

This is the first part in a series of texts exploring questions around the future of service design. The series starts here with a critical treatment of one of the central concepts of service design and design research: empathy. Later, the series will expand towards issues of behavioral design, data, machine learning and the adaptive segment of one.

When thinking about the future of service design, it is tempting to rush into all things technological. Big data, algorithms, robotics and AI populate conferences, publications and blogs dealing with the issue. This makes all the sense as these technological features will affect pretty much everything in one way or another. However, for our future design work and innovations to be successful in the world of humans, we need to hold back and remember to focus also on the oldest of questions: What are people about? What is it to be human?

Here and elsewhere concepts guide and structure our thinking; fundamental concepts do so in a fundamental way. It is especially this kind of concepts that we need to critically scrutinize. When services become more adaptive and alive, and machines we design start to imitate humans, we should examine whether these concepts that guide our design work are up to date and up for the task they are used for?

One of the fundamental concepts of service design is ‘empathy’. As a core concept empathy directs our take on people and affects how we go about doing design research, from choosing fieldwork methodology to doing analysis and building insights. It is our compass for understanding people.

How do we define empathy? In numerous different ways, likely, but according to the psychologist Paul Bloom (2016, 16), “[e]mpathy is the act of coming to experience the world as you think someone else does.” The neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky (2016, 522) points that “[e]mpathy contains the cognitive component of understanding the cause of someone’s [experience], taking his perspective, walking in his shoes.”

The trouble with empathy, however, is that it is too narrow a concept to be defining for our human insights work. Firstly, it is too focused on the conscious mind and not enough on behavior. Secondly, it is too individual-based and not systemic enough. Used uncritically, the concept of empathy can lead into a narrow conception of human action and insights about it. Critical thinking is needed. The behavioral and social sciences can be of help here.

Human action and answering the ‘why?’

Human insights work is about understanding people and their behavior in a profound way; what is meaningful, of value and how for people – and perhaps most importantly why. Answering the ‘why’ takes us to the issues of true relevance for people around which the design work then revolves.

How should you go about answering the ‘why’ questions? Why is something meaningful for people and why do people do what they do?

The naively straightforward approach would guide you to simply meet people and ask them, then take their answers at face value as explanations of true behaviors and motives. Furthermore, this approach would guide you to do sufficiently repeated probes of ‘why?’ to really dig down to the root cause. Then you would collect and summarize the given answers in relation to the research question at hand. This is likely close to the layperson view of how the trick is done, design researchers should know better.

This straightforward approach is misguided because people are highly inaccurate reporters of their actions and motivations, as much of the behavioral science of recent decades points out. We are simply not that aware of what drives our behavior. These drivers usually operate on the automatic, intuitive and often nonconscious level of the mind, or the System 1 level (e.g. Kahneman 2011), to use the current behavioral parlance.

This kind of skepticism towards people’s own accounts of their actions and reasons has a long history. Circa mid-20th century, David Ogilvy, the legendary adman, put it in an unforgettable way: “People don’t think how they feel, they don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say.”

The philosopher Paul Ricoeur made a famous distinction between hermeneutics and hermeneutics of suspicion in schools of human and social scientific thought. Hermeneutics approaches the world through people’s experiences of it – in a way reminiscent of the empathy-driven design research approach – whereas hermeneutics of suspicion critically notes that

”actors do not have direct access to the meaning of their discourse and practices, […] our everyday understanding of things is superficial and distorted. It is, in fact, a motivated covering-up of the way things really are.” (Dreyfus & Rabinow 1983, 123.)

It is the hermeneutics of suspicion way of thinking that gets much support from recent advances in the behavioral sciences. These advances are not based on philosophical speculation but on empirical evidence. As the cognitive and social scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber write, summing up recent findings in social psychology according to which

”we have little or no introspective access to our own mental processes and […] our verbal reports of these processes are often confabulations. Actually […] the way we explain our own behavior isn’t that different from the way we would explain that of others. To explain the behavior of others, we take into account what we know of them and of the situation, and we look for plausible causes. […] Where we are systematically mistaken is in assuming that we have direct introspective knowledge of our mental states and of the processes through which they are produced. […] [E]ven in the case of seemingly conscious choices, our true motives may be unconscious and not even open to introspection; the reasons we give in good faith may, in many cases, be little more than rationalizations after the fact.” (Mercier & Sperber 2017, 114-115, 117.)

Now, what does this mean for the empathy-lead approach of understanding people? First, it is important to note that answering the ‘why’ is always an interpretative operation, it is not something people can report directly, though they can have informed interpretations of their own. The answers people give to the ‘why’ question, or other accounts of their behavior’s drivers, are often post-rationalizations to keep up a coherent self-image and social image and give logical-appearing, agency-based explanations of one’s own conduct. Or, as Mercier and Sperber (ibid., 117) put it, “[r]easons, we want to argue, play a central role in after-the-fact explanation and justification of our intuitions, not in the process of intuitive inference itself”.

And this is why we shouldn’t put too much weight on people’s own subjective experience and reports about their actions and reasons. This might be forgotten if our interpretation is driven by the concept of empathy. Empathy should be treated as not the end-product of human insights work but rather as part of our qualitative data set, highly important data as such, but something that shouldn’t lock our interpretative work inside the empathized subjective experience. For answering the ‘why’, we also need critical distance, looking especially to actual behaviors and their contexts.

The ‘why?’ is something the interpreter should keep asking of the data. Answering the ‘why’ should be about (1) using appropriate data and (2) doing informed interpretation of that data.

Concerning the first point above: with empathy as our guiding concept, how do we collect data and what kind of data – are we contextual enough or merely focused inside a solipsistic experience of the individual? We should remember that experience is not enough, we need to get data of actual behavior (what we really do, not only what we think we do) and its true contexts (be they material, social, or cultural). This is where contextual, ethnographic work, behavioral data and running behavioral experiments in real-life contexts become highly important. What unifies these approaches is that they are more behavior-based and contextual than the empathy-lead approach. The focus turns towards understanding people as part of their real-life contexts and testing our innovations with actual behaviors as the final judge.

Concerning the second point above: how to approach interpreting the data? Here, the implication is that we should treat first-hand single-person experience not as an end in itself, but as data that always needs to be interpreted and explained by way of a more holistic point of view. Empathy is the beginning, not the end, of analysis. To do informed interpretation, we need to triangulate using different contextual and behavioral data sources. Also, behavioral and social scientific theories about human action and its dependence on various contexts (material, social, cultural etc.) can be of great help here in guiding us beyond the level of single-person subjective experience.

Towards understanding and designing behaviors

We now realize that the subjective experience can only partly capture what we do in our daily conduct, and explain why we do what we do. In the end, what we should strive to understand is the actual behaviors of people and how our innovations perform in the setting of concrete behavior and its contexts. This is the locus of true value, for people (things being meaningful and relevant in action) and also for companies (building economic value).

Here is the promise of moving from designing services to designing behaviors.

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To take part in the conversation comment on Twitter @antti_rannisto@Palmu_Finland.

Antti is a sociologist and design ethnographer. During the last 10 years he has worked in the academia (on social theory), at consumer research agencies (qualitative research) and in design research (qualitative, cultural and behavioral insights). Recently he has worked especially on spatial projects and is always interested in how the various contexts affect our action.

 

REFERENCES

Bloom, Paul (2016) Against Empathy. The Case for Rational Compassion. New York: Ecco.

Dreyfus, Hubert L. & Rabinow, Paul (1983) Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. Chicago: Chicago University Press

Kahneman, Daniel (2011) Thinking, fast and slow. London: Penguin Books.

Mercier, Hugo & Sperber, Dan (2017) The Enigma of Reason. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Sapolsky, Robert (2016) Behave. The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. New York: Penguin Press.

Why design thinking will be the new normal of business development in 2025

The term ‘design thinking’ will die a slow death by the year 2025. By then, design thinking will have become a new normal - a part of most organizations’ everyday talks, tasks and activities. The air we breathe. But why so?

Let’s look at the big picture. Particularly in the Western world, most of us already own everything we need – a house, a car and the latest iPhone. We don’t really need any more material belongings. Instead of owning more stuff, most of us are seeking the way to a more meaningful life: Better relationships, more time for loved ones, health and wellbeing, less stress, a fulfilling job or heightened self-awareness.

The markets that companies compete on are ultimately made up of the needs and wants of people. When what people seek is becoming increasingly intangible, the role of new services is crucial to help people get where they want to be. This is why the world is turning into services. Companies are adapting, but slowly. 

Beyond this, another major change in the last decade is that in order to succeed on a global scale, the services that companies produce must be top-notch. I mean really, really good. In the digital era, the best or cheapest alternative is often just one click away. This means that small local companies often face direct global competition, and must battle with the likes of Netflix or Facebook.

Over the last 20 years, the principles of design thinking have helped companies adapt to these changes and create concrete value through the design of new services that people like to use.

If I summarize how design thinking changes the way we work, it can be narrowed down to two things:

  • gaining deep understanding of peoples’ needs through empathy and
  • developing solutions by experimentation and prototyping

Yet, these two elements are completely new ways of working for most organizations. Many talk about empathy and experimential culture, but there is always a huge gap between talking and doing. And also a learning curve to get to a level where impact is achieved.

It’s important to understand that design thinking isn’t just a buzzword, but represents a much bigger change that is ongoing. Put simply, it’s about an extensive global shift in the way we work. In order to create necessary services, work life must adapt, and this change is already well underway. If you don’t believe me, flick through the increasing number of recruitment listings for service designers or familiarize yourself with the thoughts of companies such as Osuuspankki (In Finnish) and Kone.

While it may seem like that the buzz around design thinking can be even too much at times, I think the current design thinking hype might be a good thing after all. Because change is never easy, it’s even necessary that design thinking is being force fed to all of us – after all, it spreads the word, creates conversation and accelerates the change.

In 2025, design thinking as an “ism” will be relatively useless since the principles will have been integrated into organizations’ development and innovation processes. Some companies will do more in-house development, while some will rely on external help. Just like now. Yet the hype will be gone and energy can be directed towards actually changing peoples’ lives with services.

However, in 2025 we will need more people ready for this new way of development. People skilled in empathy that can uncover customer needs, people that can see the big picture yet extract the relevant details, people that can generate creative hypotheses from new solutions, and can design and measure experiments that impact customer and business value. And, naturally, do all this while at the same time leading change in organizations. These are the skills you need to embrace if you want to prepare for the future of work.

What will the buzzword of 2025 be? Since we don’t have to talk about how we work anymore, my guess is that we will be talking value-based design – how to bring moral and ethics to the core of development. Let’s wait and see.

Like to participate in the conversation? Comment on Twitter @jhirvonsalo@Palmu_Finland.

Johannes Hirvonsalo is an experienced service, business and organizational design professional who is especially interested in creating services and service organizations that produce behaviour change.

Design thinking and Singapore’s knowing-doing gap

As a service designer and strategist I run frequently in to situations where the great insight and tacit knowledge in companies isn’t translated into action.

I recently spent a week in Singapore meeting different government organisations and companies while on a speaking engagement at Design-week Singapore.

The knowledge level of most people I met was impressive. And those who weren’t so familiar with the philosophy of design thinking caught on very fast. They had encountered related articles or reports.

Indeed it seemed that Design thinking was – and is – on everyone’s agenda.

Despite this I was slightly puzzled.

There was clearly deep understanding and know-how. But anywhere I looked I couldn’t find any practical examples, show-cases or success stories. Everyone was excited and eager but…

Knowledge into action

Suddenly, I recognized this phenomenon. With one of my clients we jokingly diagnosed the company as a huge-headed genius with very little hands. This Mega-mind understands, analyses and conceptualises but nothing happens!

In such companies you frequently find talented good people who are frustrated. They know or at least have an educated notion what should be done but are can’t do it. Organisational structures, conflicting target setting, ill-defined work-roles and slowly changing attitudes put a stop to initiatives.

All of these challenges are big but the elephant in the room is the attitude-shift which isn’t happening.

It is safer to cut costs, drive effectiveness or streamline. They are proven tools but not expansive. And a dangerous path.

Finland vs. Singapore

In my native country of Finland companies’ depreciations have exceeded investments in the last 6 years. They are not investing! They are streamlining. I’m afraid it shows already in our economy.

Singapore is trying to activate its companies by government grants and other incentives to get firms to try design thinking in practice. Again referring to my home country I argue that that is not the way.

Companies concentrate more on qualifying for free money than actually on gaining the benefits of work being done.

Design thinking 2.0

If design thinking isn’t catching on then the way it is packaged and offered must change. Maybe for example service design as defined in the western market is not suited for Singapore. Maybe one should, instead of the current efforts concentrate on redefining the use of design thinking to such that there is natural grass-roots demand in the market.

Then you will have the show-cases. You will get the productivity gains and you will win in the market.

I have visited Singapore a few times in the past years. I love the place. Its energy, forward-looking spirit and its ability to mobilise large scale social reform fast.

Indeed I think that Finland would have many lessons to learn from it.

I am afraid however that when it comes to benefiting from design thinking Singapore might face the fate of the frog in a heating bowl.

The frog lies content in the water not noticing the temperature rising before it is too late. 

Singapore, jump out and reinvent design-thinking!

Continue the discussion on Twitter: @PeterBarkman1@PalmuFinland.

Peter creates growth opportunities for companies by interpreting customers needs, understanding business opportunities and recognizing technologies with change potential.

Conversion rate optimization – a brand manager’s friend or foe?

Can CRO Help Align With Business Strategy and End-user Goals?

I find that my line of work as a visual designer can be described as a balancing act between enabling positive user experiences and correctly applying a company’s brand and tone of voice. And although many other facets of service design could be described in a similar way, I’m approaching these themes from a user interface design standpoint.

A brand, in broad terms, is any set of qualities that set a company apart from its competitors. It stands to reason that a company that’s widely associated with positive brand qualities would want to protect its brand integrity, all the way down to the finest details.

A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service or organization.
 — Marty Neumeier, The Brand Gap (2003)

Digital Brands — Identity Vs. User Expectation?

Many companies have a set of brand guidelines that define how the brand should look, feel and sound in different contexts. To support consistent messaging about the company or service, brand manuals often document acceptable applications and usage of color, fonts, document layouts, images and key messaging.

Maintaining and monitoring acceptable brand applications is important, because brand identity sets the tone of a customer’s initial impressions and gives a brand its recognizability across different channels. A brand’s personality or identity helps build customer relationships. Visual signals establish differentiating factors and brand positioning. A digital service certainly needs to communicate the same values and ideas as the brand as a whole.

But once we start talking about digital services and user interfaces, building a positive brand image stops being just about staying visually on brand. Visual design for online services is not just about making a nice-looking page. In fact, overly harmonious and pretty might mean hard to figure out and lacking in meaningful visual cues. User expectations of how things should look and work need to be accounted for, and users have been trained by multi-million dollar companies like Facebook and Netflix to expect user interfaces that are easy to navigate and minimize friction between the user and their goal, especially on a mobile device. According to a Google research study, only 9 % of mobile site or app visitors will stay if they don’t quickly find what they’re looking for.

Reducing Friction to Align with User and Business Objectives

A large part of our perception of a brand stems from our past experiences with that brand. Google’s study shows that customers who don’t find immediate utility in an app or a website will not only move on, but 28 % will also be less likely to ever buy products from that company in the future. In 2014, Harvard Business Review explored ways to quantify the impact of customer experience on sales and wrote that repeat customers who had the best past experiences spend 140 % more compared to those with the worst past experiences.

28 % of users who don’t find immediate utility on a website will be less likely to ever buy from that company in the future.

On one hand this presents a challenge: anticipating users’ needs and presenting them with the right calls to action at the right time is difficult. On the other hand this is also a brand-building opportunity. According to Google’s data, 29 % of mobile users will immediately switch to another service if they can’t find the answers they’re looking for. Being that other, more nimble service can be a very cost-effective way to build up a following for a new service. Traditional branding activities are expensive and time-consuming. For a new service or a startup, there is no better brand experience than beating the competition at giving the user what they’re looking for, at exactly the right time, in an easy-to-understand interface.

Now, there is an entire field of expertise dedicated to reducing friction between the user and their goal on a website or within an app and increasing the share of users that reach a specific goal, and that’s Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO). Much of the methodology behind CRO could be thought of simply as means for improving user experience through giving the user what they need for as efficiently as possible — or before they even know they need it.

Testing different ways to present the same information and interface actions is at the heart of conversion rate optimization

For example, to be able to quickly respond to user needs, the primary calls-to-action that a site or app provides should be prominent. It’s important to make room for these primary calls to action and to steer away from cluttering pages or screens with secondary content that might result in user confusion or drive traffic away from sales-generating activities.

However, identifying the key user needs and figuring out what form those key calls-to-action should take — how they look, how they’re phrased — is difficult to accomplish with just a designer’s intuition. In other words, it’s critical to have an understanding of how people use your service, because otherwise you’re just taking shots in the dark. Brand-building interactions shouldn’t be decided by a designer’s gut feeling or the highest-paid person’s opinion. That’s where CRO tools like page analytics, user research and A/B testing come into play.

Cyclical diagram of conversion rate optimization process
Conversion rate optimization combines data analytics, user insights and continuous testing to optimize the user’s journey

In Service of the Brand — or the Brand Aesthetic?

Methodically testing different variations of an interaction flow or of individual page elements — headlines, value propositions, buttons, pricing charts, testimonials — is integral to generating more sales or leads without investing directly into more traffic. Good brand guidelines allow for enough leeway that as long as brand values aren’t being contradicted or users misled, you can try different color combinations, different copy treatments, different page layouts or a number of other factors that might affect the way users understand and experience the interface.

Outdated brand guidelines — or ones primarily designed for print applications, even if recent — might be at odds with conversion optimization best practices, or might even lead to usability or legibility issues in a digital context. An overinsistence on consistency across channels might likewise lead to problems when trying to optimize the user experience in each channel. For example, I’ve worked with visual identities that have been built around several primary colors, of which only one is meant to be used at a time per page. This makes sense in a PowerPoint or print context, but if a website has to be built in a way that avoids using multiple colors per screen, those colors can’t be used to convey meaning or to highlight important elements. This has the effect of making it harder for a user to identify key links and buttons. It also severely cripples a designer’s ability to test different approaches to conversion rate improvement.

An overinsistence on consistency across channels might lead to problems when trying to optimize the user experience in each channel.

Conversion rate optimization is a continuous effort, and means methodical testing and research to align a service better with its business objectives (or key performance indicators — KPIs). Done right, this translates to more efficient service for users. If this process is hamstrung by outdated or draconian brand visual guidelines, then a question arises: are we trying to serve the brand aesthetic or the business goals? If the brand guidelines prevent testing different solutions for reducing friction between the user and whatever our business model wants them to do, the brand guidelines have failed the brand.

Compromise is inevitable when designing services. Delivering the best possible outcome means knowing which compromises to make. An insistence on very strict branding consistency and guardianship across all channels can prevent testing highlight colors or easily scannable copy. An online service like a website or an app is not meant to define what the company brand should be. It should deliver on the best expectations the company’s customers have of the brand.