Updated: Jul 28, 2021
Understanding innovation initiative failures
There's no pleasant way of putting it - it sucks when an innovation initiative fails. Regardless of the type - product launch, marketing campaign, or change management - initiative losses are discouraging at the very least. Dangerous at their worst. Your company invested a great deal of time and money into the initiative, and so did everyone involved including you as the leader. Resources like time, money, human resources, market reputation, and customer goodwill are just a few things sinking with the loss of an initiative. String together too many failures, there is the loss of enthusiasm, hope, and often jobs. And not to kick you while you're down in the dumps, but it likely went awry in the earliest stage of your discovery. In the initial phase of user experience interviews. In design thinking, this initial phase is called empathy.
Empathy is more than understanding feelings
In design thinking, empathy is more than understanding emotions. On the contrary, I argue in this post that it's likely you don't even have to "understand" feelings to create innovative solutions. However, to ignore them altogether is detrimental, which I write briefly on in this LinkedIn post. While understanding the user experience is titled empathy in design thinking, there is a lot more to it. And this "lot more" is fully understanding the experience from the user's perspective.
Fully understanding user experience is the bedrock that builds or breaks innovation initiatives.
So while your user may look different depending on your work, like
R&D manager whose user is the customer
Marketing manager whose user is customers, partners or employees
HR leader whose user is employees or other company leaders
CIO whose user is C-suite or line of business executives
the lesson of empathy is universal. And the mistakes made in understanding the user are widespread. Let's look at a hypothetical example to unpack these common mistakes.
When simple words aren't so simple
As an illustration, let's consider the maker of a healthcare test. Their customers have a condition that comes and goes. The unnerving thing is that depending on underlying indicators; there are times when everything will be fine and others where they will die. Currently, customers have to go to a hospital for the test. They can ignore the alarms, and everything turns out fine, or they can ignore the warnings and end up dead. Your company wants to interview users with the condition to learn more about what keeps them from getting to the hospital for the test. You've talked with three users so far, and one comment sticks out on all three.
"I can't afford to go to the hospital."
On the surface, you have your answer. It's the cost of going to the hospital that is the issue. Your innovation challenge is creating a means of testing that is cheap. Case closed! But is the case closed? Although that is one possibility, there are others. In fact, for every circumstance, three aspects require us to dig deeper to understand our user's experience and their needs fully.
Meaning, perspective, and feelings create understanding
While it can be awkward to dig deeper into a simple statement that appears so straightforward, it is crucial to do so. Understanding the meaning of words is the first step to understanding the user. The second is understanding their perspective. And last but not least, understanding their feelings.
Customer #1: Suzy, "I can't afford to go to the hospital."
Meaning: When I say I can't afford it, I mean I can't afford it. I don't have the time to go to the hospital.
Perspective: I'm a single mom of three young kids for whom I am their sole physical and financial support. I make good money, but between work and the care of my children, I have no time to squeeze in a trip to the hospital. Nor the hours required for testing. Spending 4-5 hours to drive to the hospital, admit myself, get tested, and await results is not my top priority. It's unusually nothing more than stress anyway.
Feeling: Overwhelmed. Exhausted. I don't need the test; I just need a nap.
Customer #2: Joe, "I can't afford to go to the hospital."
Meaning: When I say I can't afford it, I mean I can't afford it. I don't have the money to go to the hospital.
Perspective: I'm you're average, Joe. I live paycheck to paycheck. I barely have money to repair my car if it breaks down. I certainly don't have the thousands of dollars a visit to the ER will cost me.
Feeling: Powerless. Defeated. Sure, I'd like to be able to get the test, but my money goes quickly. I can only hope for the best.
Customer #3: Mike, "I can't afford to go to the hospital."
Meaning: When I say I can't afford it, I mean I can't afford it. I don't have the time to get to the hospital.
Perspective: I'm retired and comfortable financially. After leaving my career in the city, I wanted to escape the rat race and moved back to my hometown. A small, rural community that's hours away from any major city or hospital. My location adds three hours to the 4-5 hours of diagnosis at the hospital. If the warning is of impending death, then it's best to rest here with my loved ones than leave in a panicked rush without the possibility of a positive outcome.
Feeling: Resolved. Accepting. I don't want to count my last minutes, I want my last minutes to count.
Mistakes avoided and on the right path
Avoiding the mistake of taking the user's words at face value by digging deeper into meaning, perspective, and feeling sets you up for innovative success. In the above scenario, reducing the cost would have left two-thirds of your users' hindrances untouched leaving potential sales opportunities on the table. In addition, it gives rise to unnecessary profit vulnerabilities should unforeseen material, or supply chain issues arise in the future. No longer is the innovation a simple cost reduction but involves a total shift of time required and limited location availability.