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Empathy? Not feeling it.

Consumer closeness? Not even close.

Consumer centricity? More like on the periphery.

There is plenty written about these 3 key approaches to market research, but no one has nailed it.

No one has got it working in such a way that they are really understanding people; and as a result, no one is really winning the innovation race, just adding more shades of grey.

As a company specialising in this field of ethnography, we still see too many products launched on a whim, with far too high failure rates, all the while suffering increased competition at the fixture.

It’s a poor show and one that isn’t that difficult to fix. If, and only if the will and the bravery is there to do things even just slightly differently.

Let’s start with empathy and where we find ourselves today…

After 19 months of being restricted in our ability to meet people as freely as we would otherwise like, our empathy gene is failing fast. We haven’t gotten any better at understanding people. We’ve got worse.

An example… There was an assumption amongst many of us (the people most likely reading this) that we were all going through the same thing: we’ve all had to work from home etc.


Just 35.9% of the working population did ‘some’ work from home during 2020 (an increase of just 9.4% compared with 2019). Yet, read the media, watch the news, listen to your peers, and you’d think everyone was in the same boat. Yet we weren’t. We were in the minority. Shocked? Yeah, I was too. But then that’s who I was surrounding myself with. People of a similar background, similar lifestage, in a similar location etc.

We’re rubbish at empathy. We need to get better at it.

For thousands of years, people made things for other people they knew; but the Industrial Revolution divided producer from consumer. Ever since, big corporations have struggled to put customers first.

Dev Patnaik

What about consumer closeness?

Well it’s a bit like teenagers and sex. Everyone talks about it. No one is doing it.

And that word consumers? Ugh.

Consumer centricity as a term DOES NOT help empathy. Empathy is about people. Knowing how someone prepares and drinks a coffee is fine, but understanding them and WHY they do what they do is crucial:

  • what is their home like,
  • what is influencing them,
  • how do they spend their time,
  • what keeps them awake at night etc.

We need to think about people centricity if we are to flex that empathy gene, not consumer centricity.

So how can we be better at it and how can we make it something that companies actually want to invest in? That they can identify a clear ROI? That they move from just talking about it, to doing it?

Innovation is the answer and the driver.

The link between (successful) innovation and empathy is something that cannot be denied, and yet, it is often ignored.

We hear about how we shouldn’t ask people what they want because, well, how would they know? And there are a legion of famous (and annoying) quotes about it that try to explain this (see H. Ford, car maker).

It is difficult to deny, however, that if you are able to identify motivations, need states and barriers through the observation of what people do, not what they say (how they self-interpret), then you will develop more relevant products for them.

We are stacked with examples of this.

Question: What is the worst thing about online shopping?
Answer: “It takes me such a long time.”
Action: Find ways to speed-up the online grocery shop.

But the actual insight through observation with no initial questions asked is:

She is busy, she has more interesting things happening in her life than online shopping, she is distracted by other notifications from friends via WhatsApp. She uses all the functionality correctly, navigates efficiently and does a main shop in around 6 mins, spending over £150. She has the perception that online grocery shopping takes such a long time because it is dull. So the correct action to take might instead be to make the shop more engaging, more fun. Not to try and speed it up.

Question: How did you find setting up the new coffee machine
Answer: “I found it really easy.”
Action: None, the consumer is happy!

But the actual insight through observation with no initial questions asked was:

It took him 25 minutes to set up a machine that was designed to be set up in 5. Whilst the person found it easy, the action should be to improve the instructions and tweak some of the packaging that made it difficult for him to complete certain tasks during set-up if you truly want to claim ease of setup over competitors.

I’m not saying drop all questions. I’m saying look at when you ask them.

Perhaps an observe-first, question-later approach would be more effective?

I believe it is, from what I’ve seen.

We could let people talk about what actually matters to them, not just answer the questions that matter to us.

Martin Weigel

Another example: What is the best way to understand if you can improve the packaging of a product? I bet you’d ask questions such as:

  • Was the pack easy to open?
  • Where do you store the pack?
  • Was it easy to get the product out of the pack?
  • Was it easy to reseal the pack?
  • How did you determine how much of the product to dispense from the pack?

But could you get more accurate answers to all of the above just by asking them to record themselves using the product from start to finish without any questions?

You’ll see where they store it. How they open it and if they find that hard. Where they place it. How they extract the product. How they reseal. All just from watching. All your questions answered. And it is more likely to be closer to the truth of the experience than if you had asked them those questions.

If you want to understand how people have breakfast, why bring them to a windowless room with 10 strangers to discuss it at dinner time? Use the right method for the job.

Getting to the truth is what everyone should be interested in, it’s the only way to understand people properly (rather than market research being carried out at the equivalent level of asking someone ‘How are you?’ – answer: ‘Yeah fine’).

Truth leads to better empathy, which leads to more successful innovation. More successful innovation leads to a strong ROI. Everyone is happy. No?