RSR Research: Empathy and Design Thinking

Dec 10, 2012
Paula Rosenblum

Through a special arrangement, what follows is an excerpt of an article from Retail Paradox, RSR Research’s weekly analysis on emerging issues facing retailers, presented here for discussion.

Hearing the word "empathy" in the context of application development and delivery at SAP’s Tech Ed event in Madrid left me befuddled. What does such a sociologically charged term have to do with technology implementation?

It all starts to come clear when you couple the notion of empathy with that of what SAP calls "Design Thinking."

In the world of Design Thinking, any human-facing technology must have three elements:

  • It must have business viability (in other words, it has to answer a functional need);
  • It must be technologically feasible (meaning you actually have to be able to make it work);
  • It has to be desirable for the humans that will be using it.

Desirability doesn’t just mean they need it functionally, it means they might actually want to use it. I’ll tell you as an IT veteran of oh-so-many-years that this was the most often overlooked part of application development, and it was probably the single biggest source of implementation failure in my career: technological successes and cultural failures.

A graphic example of what can happen when we don’t think about a new technology’s desirability arrived when I returned home. I found out my favorite pharmacy associate, Mary, was planning to retire at the end of October. The reason: she was expected to learn a new computer application that was part of a new POS system and was afraid she was just too old to figure it out. I saw her fears were not unfounded.

While eliminating manual recordkeeping and also the hunting and pecking for prescriptions, the system was slow and, worse, confusing. Along with listing the drugs that are ready for pick-up, it also apparently lists those that are coming soon. The pharmacy clerk then has to ask the customer if he or she wants that one too, and then start the hunting and pecking process to find those scrips.

In other words, the system is functional, and more or less technologically feasible, but it just doesn’t take into account the way people work or how they want to work. Of course, it’s always easy to smugly say, "Well, people really don’t like change." And of course, they don’t. But that doesn’t let a technologist off the hook.

Now, maybe one day that new pharmacy system is going to work perfectly and we’ll all zip along. But in the meanwhile, lines are longer (as the head pharmacist observes every time I stop by), and the world moves more slowly. And I miss Mary, who really did know how to keep the pharmacy train running on time. I just keep asking myself, "Did the designers actually talk to old-timers and new-timers both?"

Why does the human element appear to be lacking in many retail technology implementations? In what ways can more “empathy” be built into the development and roll out processes? What extra steps could be taken to overcome any “resistance to change” in today’s increasingly tech-driven store?

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11 Comments on "RSR Research: Empathy and Design Thinking"

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Adrian Weidmann
7 years 10 months ago

As a marketing technologist myself, I too have learned the hard lessons of “technical success and cultural failures.” It is one of the biggest challenges of a consultancy—overcoming the cultural ‘we know what our customer wants’ status quo.

Long before ANY technology is even considered, retailers need to take the time to truly understand what their shoppers really want. Designing and implementing a solution from a shopper-centric point of view will always prevail. Never assume anything! New technology must integrate seamlessly into the shopper’s workflow—not the other way around! I’ve seen many innovative marketing and merchandising solutions that have been found to be extremely effective based upon initial tests be rejected because they could not be ‘operationalized’. It’s a lot easier that way. Instead of taking the time to change, or at least investigating the feasibility, the SOP, retailers simply kill effective campaigns.

Taking the time to embrace your targeted shopper audience and bring them into the design process will provide invaluable insights and observations that will dramatically enhance the viability of your final implementation.

Ian Percy
7 years 10 months ago

There’s “mechanistic” (Does the thing work?); there’s “visionary” (Does it lead us anywhere?) and there’s “Energetic” (Does it resonate with, or appeal to, our own ‘frequency’, fulfillment or desire?)

93% of all apps, retail shops, schools, restaurants, governments are stuck in the mechanistic mode. 6% of them have an actual purpose or at least the intent to make the world a better place. 1% draw you into itself, where you recognize it as connecting to your higher self; “it fits” in other words.

The goal is to recognize that you need all three and indeed it’s all ONE thing. Paula’s pharmacist Mary intuitively understood that principle until the corporation doubled down on the mechanistic. Most organizations are still quite a distance from understanding that it’s the energy holding the universe—and their enterprise—together.

“Empathy” is far too small a word for what Paula is describing.

Herb Sorensen
7 years 10 months ago

Because retailers do not think like Steve Jobs. (You don’t deserve to understand this if you do not take the time to READ his biography….

Phil Rubin
7 years 10 months ago

The human element is missing in technology implementation broadly, not just in retail. But it’s worse in retail because technology is all too often an afterthought; or perhaps in fairness, it’s just not at the top of the retail investment priorities.

If there is any doubt about the human element missing from technology, look at what Apple has done to change the world of computing and how successful it has been in adopting human-centric views in its design.

Ken Lonyai
7 years 10 months ago

First, the particular example Paula describes sounds far less like resistance to change than it does poor software design. Ironically, just a few days ago I was giving a presentation called “Amazing UX – Strategies for Mobile Developers” which laid out these issues and more. If I may quote one of our slides:

“UX development more than anything is a mindset. It’s putting yourself in the user’s shoes. It’s using logic. It’s opting for simplicity and clarity. It’s making every interaction easy, what’s expected, and ideally… more than what’s expected.

Delivering less than the expected is a failure.”

If “resistance to change” is perceived as a real issue for retail software/tech deployment, the application is completely missing the mark and another vendor’s product needs consideration.

Ed Rosenbaum
7 years 10 months ago

Could it be the developers of these systems similar to the story Paula related, have no direct contact with either those who will use the system or those the systems will effect? It’s easier to develop systems when you do not have to take in account the users.

Lee Kent
7 years 10 months ago

Having been a consultant in retail technology more years than I care to share, I have a few thoughts about this. As a consultant, I never designed or implemented a system that did not have a team made up of users from every area that would be impacted. That said, these people often had no technology background, had never been on this kind of team, usually had to do at least some part of their day jobs and in the end, got caught up in the design being put before them from the tech people. They were no longer advocates for their fellow users but rather had joined the ‘other side’.

This does not mean all technology efforts were poor designs, it just means that yes, there is a need to put empathy into the process. It means having the right people on the team and setting the right goals/objectives for the project.

Mark Heckman
7 years 10 months ago
In many cases, the compelling reason to adapt new technology is unfortunately not to enhance the user’s ability to do their job or serve the customer, but rather it is designed to replace the user, or at least replace many of their existing manual functions. New, enabling software often does all of that quite well, but does not always provide the user or the customer a better way to interact. When the user and the customer are not immediate beneficiaries of the new tool, it often becomes a dreaded mandated new step, instead of a welcomed new way to transact business. I am currently assisting a client with the development of new software tools. The client is rightly taking the approach of creating “User Stories” for each element and function of the software. These “User Stories” allow the development team to build software with the user and end-customer benefit in mind. In fact, “User Stories” often involve the input of several end users and customers along the way. The resulting process can often mitigate or… Read more »
Shep Hyken
7 years 10 months ago
The company must walk in their customers’ shoes. That’s empathy. Too many times companies create technology that they think will make it better/easier for a customer, but still misses the mark. Why? Sometimes they are just too close to be objective. Here is the bottom line: To get a customer to use technology there has to be an incentive. That could come in the form of… 1. It saves the customer money.2. Makes the customer money.3. Solves a customer’s problem.4. Eliminates some “pain.” 5. Easier and more convenient that prior or conventional methods. Think of what the airlines did with online check-in and kiosks to get boarding passes. They had to train the customer that it saved them time, was easier, more convenient and more. They gave them incentives for using the technology (bonus frequent flier miles). They proved to their customers that this was a better way. Retail is similar. The customer must have confidence that the technology works and is beneficial. That takes time, and the customer wants proof. Test it on willing… Read more »
Vahe Katros
Vahe Katros
7 years 10 months ago
Great post Paula and here is some added color that might be useful. Retail technologists traditionally have been tasked with implementing back office systems. When it comes to design of back office systems, the package developers usually (hopefully) cared about human factors. If you are experienced in systems, you know how that plays out—the folks in the A/P department would complain about not being able to bulk enter invoices, the problem would get fixed, and the software vendor would add the fix to their features list. Ultimately, the back office developer didn’t really need to think about feelings except for being sensitive to consumer-facing default messages at the POS like: “UE004, Account In Arrears, Card Denied.” Employee feelings? Empathy usually didn’t matter after initial tests and rollout. Empathy? RT_M! In the front office however, whether it’s the kiosk, self-checkout or now the consumer web and mobile, we can’t give the customer a manual called “Macy’s Multichannel Shoppers Manual: An introduction on how to shop.” These days, if you are lucky, you have a few seconds… Read more »
Ralph Jacobson
7 years 10 months ago
One of the challenges my own employer, IBM, tries to do with their amazing Research Group is ensure the usability of all the great inventions they develop. Ideas are only as good as the utilization people give them. We have done post-implementation analyses of 3rd party software installations three years after roll out, and have found as little as 10 percent utilization of the software. That’s a troubling situation, to say the least. The human element NEEDS to be integrated all along the way for these technologies. Why? BECAUSE HUMANS ARE SUPPOSED TO BE USING THEM!!! “Empathy” is an interesting moniker for this challenge. I like taking users along for the ride and ensuring their sentiments are considered from development to ultimately implementation concludes. “Resistance to change” is still out there in the grocery biz. Not so much in non-food/fashion apparel, etc. When I was a consultant, I would assemble “Action Teams” in a couple of “Model Stores” in the supermarket companies. I would invite some of the more “seasoned” (Read: “Stubborn”) store employees to… Read more »

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