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issue: October 2009 APPLIANCE Magazine

APPLIANCE Engineer - The Open Door
Organizational Empathy, from Top to Bottom


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Steve Portigal, principal, Portigal Consulting

I went online to make a medical appointment recently, and I was surprised that there was no place to explain my symptoms or reasons for needing to see the doctor. When I arrived at the clinic a few days later, a receptionist collected my copayment without any discussion of my situation. I found my assigned room and dropped check-in printout in the appropriate tray. After a moment, my name was called, and a medical assistant brought me back and began administering “treatment.” I was told to stand on a scale, and then brought to a room where she took my blood pressure. Then she wheeled over a device on a pole and produced a long metal probe. She advanced on me with it, pointing it at my face, without saying a word. Bewildered and slightly afraid, I soon realized it was a digital thermometer and that I was supposed to open my mouth (which I did, seconds before impact).

I find it distressing that the medical assistant never said, “We’re now going to take your temperature, so please open up!” You can imagine that most patients would not immediately know what this probe was used for or what behavior was expected of them. On an emotional level, even if you do know what is happening, there’s something depersonalizing about a wordless interaction when something is being placed into your mouth. There was no acknowledgement of what I might be feeling—both physically and emotionally—during my experience.

As time went on and we interacted more, I did find the medical assistant to be helpful, but that initial set of interactions is hugely symbolic of the gap between my experience as a user of the service and her experience as a provider of the service. Each touch point (including people like the receptionist and medical assistant, or artifacts like the Web site where appointments are made) had a reasonable but not overwhelming awareness of my perspective. That limited awareness means the system is not fully oriented to tune small decisions that will create the ideal experience.

But of course, a lack of empathy doesn’t only settle at the lowest levels of an organization. Many years ago, we presented the results of a broad-based ethnographic study of domesticity to a group of appliance industry executives. We shared the stories from research participants about balancing their time between the pleasures of home (decorating, child rearing, socializing) and the demands (cleaning, laundry, organizing). Rather than embracing those stories and understanding the lifestyle that informed how customers were choosing and using their products, these men told us about how their wives kept house for them, and then lauded the upcoming monster-truck-like appliance capabilities that they felt their wives would benefit from.

You can imagine that if those folks are running an HMO, there’s little chance that their medical assistants would have the cultural imperative to learn the patient’s perspective enough to consistently announce, “Okay, open wide, I’m going to take your temperature!”

When we work with clients who are ready to engage with a new perspective on their customers, we’ll go through each of the insights and work together to answer the question, “What could we do (build/make/sell/say, etc.) to address that?” The point is not to decide right then and there how to solve the problem, but to generate a diverse list of possibilities that can be prioritized and further developed.

Driving these kinds of cultural changes isn’t trivial, but it isn’t impossible, either. In that single executive meeting, we didn’t noticeably alter those executives’ view of their customers. But we planted some seeds, and we always find that continuing to work with product teams and bring insight into the organization around specific product decisions leads to more and more people beginning to “get it.” The good news is that from the executives down to the medical assistants, people generally want to make the connection with their customers, but don’t always have access to the learning moments that suggest their own perspective differs from the customer’s perspective. We need empathetic individuals to make empathetic organizations, which will in turn make more empathetic individuals.

Our healthcare example serves as merely a timely metaphor. We all see the need for optimizing processes and resources. But there’s an increasing call for producers in all categories to create best-in-class user experiences across all customer touch points. If the organization doesn’t try to truly understand the worldview of the customer, it can’t ever create that exceptional experience. Ethnography and similar tools need to be used for more than collecting unmet needs; they must bring the organization a new understanding of the customer’s frame of reference.

Working closely with customers throughout the development process means gathering insights at the beginning, validating hypotheses during product development, and testing solutions before they are rolled out. As project teams begin operating from this customer’s frame of reference, they will lead by example, helping move the process of changing corporate culture forward.

Fomenting a revolution isn’t always possible or appropriate, but starting from your locus of control and pushing outward can produce steady results. Understand how customers make sense of the world, and make all your small and big decisions with that understanding clearly in mind. Show colleagues and superiors how that understanding manifests itself in product decisions and track the outcomes. Being mindful of your own successes will help others see the impact this approach can have on the bottom line.

“We need empathetic individuals to make empathetic organizations, which will in turn make more empathetic individuals.”

About the Author:

Steve Portigal

Steve Portigal is the principal of Portigal Consulting (Pacifica, CA, U.S., www.portigal.com), which he founded in 2001. Trained as a specialist in human-computer interaction, Portigal has an MS from the University of Guelph in Canada.

 

 More Open Door—Opinion from Appliance Engineers:

  • Bob Schiffmann of R.F. Schiffmann Associates:
    The Next Breakthrough in Microwaves?
  • Jeff Varick of Brandmotion: Innovate…or Die
    by Not Trying
  • Michael Prince of Beyond Design: Industrial Design Meets Engineering

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