Igniting Innovation Through Deep Empathy: Part II

By Jandie Lane

Part II: Five Ways to Achieve Deep Empathy
Design-thinking in innovation is essential to creating the passionate buyers that will flock to buy your product or service and remain loyal over time.

Successful innovation requires starting with a truly deep understanding of your target end-user. It is essential to creating the passionate buyers that will flock to buy your product or service and remain loyal over time. Reaching that level of emotional connection, however, requires direct, personal interaction inside the real world of your target end-user: the ability to see, feel, and understand what they really do and why, versus what they say they do and why. But how do you get there? How do you step into their life in order to achieve true empathy? Over the course of my 30 years leading innovation initiatives for Procter & Gamble and other Fortune 100 companies, I’ve developed a repertoire of approaches to help innovation teams do just that and, thereby, arrive at the deep empathy so critical to breakthrough innovation. Here’s how to prepare and five of my favorite ways to engage.

Slow Down to Go Fast: Slow down at the start of an innovation initiative. Take the time to get to know your target end-user on a head, heart, and gut level. Invest in establishing a deep understanding of your target and the problem to be solved (or the opportunity to be realized). By observing and speaking directly to end-users, you’ll see the problems and trade-offs your target end-users face in their daily lives. Only then can you start to solve those problems and eliminate those trade-offs. Your progress will actually accelerate later on, resulting in faster total speed-to-market. The goal is to achieve such a level of intuition with your target end-user that you develop a “gut feel” for what will (or won’t) resonate with him or her. With this deep level of understanding, you don’t have to answer every new question that arises with additional research. You and your team will have developed such an empathic, intuitive level of understanding that you’ll know what your target audience wants without the cost and time that often comes from researching every single question.

Prepare: Before engaging with your target user, it’s important to do your homework. First, it’s critical to have the right team assembled, led by an expert in this type of highly interactive consumer research. Second, team members need to achieve a level of self-awareness that prevents their own personal biases from influencing their interpretation of what they observe. Third, establish foundational knowledge, insight, and curiosity through a review of existing information.

Assemble your team: 

Start by retaining a consumer insight professional with specific training and expertise in the design, execution, and interpretation of this type of consumer research. Expert facilitation, interviewing, interpersonal, and analytical skills are critical to methodology selection, interview guide preparation, and assurance that questions are asked in a non-leading way, answers are probed to reveal the deepest level of insight, and results are interpreted in an objective, meaningful, and actionable way.

This insight professional will also help pull together and facilitate the engagement of the right mix of cross-functional expertise for the broader innovation team, both internal and external to the company. Inclusion of external experts brings fresh perspectives, a broader set of experiences to draw from, and out-of-the-box thinking that can spark truly transformational and disruptive ideas.

Designing and implementing deep empathy research is critical for innovation success, but it’s not easy when starting from ground zero. Collaborating with an outside resource with subject matter experts in consumer insight, as well as access to highly experienced professionals who can serve as members of your innovation team, accelerates implementation and success.

Start with the person in the mirror:

Everyone has an accent:

  • “The fact that we think the way we speak is normal [and others have the accent] is the first clue that empathy is quite difficult. You might also notice how easy it is to notice people who are much worse at driving than you are-but that you almost never recognize someone who’s driving better than you are.” -Seth Godin

I always start a dive into empathy development with self-awareness exercises for those on the innovation team. Unbiased observation is an essential skill for the innovator. However, humans are biased creatures; we filter everything we observe through a lens of our own belief. Neuroscience has proven that about 80% of our thought process is subconscious. We view other people more by our subconscious beliefs, hopes and fears than by any rational information. While we like to think that at least in our professional lives we are more rational, methodical, and fact-based thinkers, science proves time and time again that this just isn’t true. Of course, it’s not realistic for your team to leave all biases aside when they contribute to an innovation project, but there are ways to create both awareness of some of the biases and a greater understanding that will help unlock some of these biases to build greater empathy with others.

Desktop / Online Discovery: 

Get to know the space you are exploring and the questions you may want to ask in the course of your deeper empathy work. Re-read any proprietary research that you have in-house on your target user group, the category, and adjacent categories. Google it. Search public databases, industry associations, blogs, published reports, discussion boards, and competitor’s websites. With the explosion of content marketing, there is an incredible amount of free/low-cost information available on just about any topic imaginable. Read product and service reviews. What do people “say” they do/feel? People tell lots of stories for free. This step helps you develop the best probing questions for the next phase of your research.

Engage: The most direct path to empathy is getting to know your end-user on a personal basis through human interaction. Telephone and online research (even when using video) can provide some insight, but does not replace face-to-face human interactions. The experience is different for the respondent and for the researcher. Face-to-face interaction often allows for more trust, and trust supports more disclosure. Also, subtle differences in body language and energy that are missed in online/video research can reveal very important insights. In-person engagements change you and your perspective. You are more likely to become a champion for your end-user. I have had many situations in which team members who personally interacted with the end-user had very different insights from those who viewed the interaction remotely. It’s like being the one responsible for videotaping a child’s birthday party; you feel one step away, removed from the event. It is a much different experience to be at the party versus watching the party.

I always recommend team members roll up their sleeves and interact directly with consumers themselves along with me, or another professional moderator. Here are five of my favorite engagement methods; I find they reveal the rich insights and lead to the deep empathy essential for breakthrough innovation.

360o Interviews:

Talk (mostly listen!) one-on-one to not only the target end-user, but also the people they interact with regularly and who impact/influence their daily lives and the decisions (both large and small) that they make. For example, I recently lead the empathy stage for an innovation initiative focused on reducing illness within Assisted Living facilities. I spoke with administrators, staff, nurses, cleaning personnel, and other employees. These interviews were a big help in understanding needs at the intellectual (head) level. However, I also interviewed current facility residents and “future” residents in local community centers. Our discussions were not just about health programs and disease prevention; we also asked them to share their personal stories. These stories told me what was most important in their lives (heart), in their environment, and in their homes. I even spoke with their friends and family members to get a more holistic picture of their daily lives, values, and the important factors in the decision to move to assisted living and in the selection of a specific facility (gut). This comprehensive view and deep level of understanding led to breakthroughs in program offerings and requirements that brought double digit growth to sell-in and compliance, thereby reducing illness and increasing profit for the facilities.

Live As-If: 

This type of discovery is a great tool to truly understand the challenges your end-user might face that they are unable to fully articulate. I’ve used many different methods depending on the category or innovation area; here are just two examples:

  • Live on their budget. If your target consumer has limited income, live on their budget for a month to understand some of the trade-offs they make on a regular basis, such as buying only half a tank of gas so they can buy school supplies for their children. If the end-user is higher income, you can explore where they shop even if you don’t personally buy anything.
  • Live with their physical challenges. Navigate a category while simulating the physical challenges of your target audience. For example, for end-users who are visually impaired, I’ve had team members do their laundry wearing glasses with plastic wrap around the lenses. To simulate those with dexterity challenges, we’ve opened prescription bottles wearing gloves. For those using crutches, we’ve spent a few days on crutches ourselves.


See and explore all the areas and venues that may interest or influence your end-user. For example, if your end-user is the mom of a toddler, go hang out at a children’s museum, or sit in the waiting room of a pediatrician’s office, or ask a day-care center if you can observe drop-off and pick-up. Seeing first-hand both what delights and frustrates your target about these activities makes their life “real” for you as well, which leads to greater empathy and spurs creativity.

Ethnographic Discovery: 

Ethnographic research is observational research, interacting with people where they live, where they play, where they shop, on their commute, and maybe even where they work. Spend time with your end-user so that you have an opportunity to observe various behaviors within the scope and context of your project. For example, I’ve led discovery sessions that included shopping with people for hair products and then coming back to their home to watch them color their hair. I’ve watched people do laundry – in their home, at a laundromat, and in their backyard creek. This is the best way to understand unarticulated needs, jobs to be done, and compensating behaviors. It is amazing how people go through everyday tasks on autopilot. If you ask them to verbally describe step-by-step what they do, they always miss a few steps.

Peer Groups: 

Peer groups are naturally occurring groups of people with whom your target end-user regularly interacts, such as friends, neighbors, classmates, and family members. This technique leverages these relationships by asking a few members of a peer group to discuss and even perform a task together with the target end-user. This is useful for not only getting at previously unidentified needs (peers point out things we don’t recognize ourselves), but also allows for input and building on preliminary ideas. It is a particularly useful methodology when there is a strong social component (i.e. home entertaining, home cooking) or mutual decision-making (i.e. insurance, car buying) involved in the category under exploration.

To move beyond incremental, “me too” innovation requires a truly deep understanding of your end-user. True empathy is more than just imagining someone else’s experience; it’s about choosing to have an experience that literally puts you in touch with the mind, heart, and gut of the matter. By observing and speaking directly to end-users, you can solve the real problems that real people face. This user-first approach taps into feelings and experiences to provide purposeful and informed concepts and ideas, leading to truly breakthrough, successful innovation.

Make sure to watch our webinar, focusing on the big picture surrounding innovation through deep empathy.


About the Author: Jandie is a consumer/shopper/human behavior expert with a passion for helping companies elevate and accelerate their innovation, branding, targeting, and communication strategies. Jandie led client-side innovation within Procter & Gamble for 28 years; she now leads innovation workshops and training for Fortune 100 companies, non-profit organizations, teams, and individuals around the globe. A YourEncore Expert since 2013, Jandie leverages her background in behavioral psychology, sociology, and neuroscience to help her clients succeed. She uses tools and approaches from a variety of fields, including Design Thinking, the Osborn-Parnes Model, Improv, Sensorial Exploration, and The Grove Strategic VisioningTM and Graphic Facilitation Model. Jandie received her Bachelor of Science in Psychology and Sociology from Miami University in Ohio. She has advanced training and certification in Design Thinking from Stanford University, IDEO Innovation, P&G Gym, and Innovation Facilitation from the Creative Problem Solving Institute (CPSI).

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