This column originally appeared in The Globe and Mail on August 15, 2013.
“Hold down the little red button,” I told my mother who, in her late 60s at this point, was learning to use her first cellphone. “But that button says ‘End,’” she said. “I want to turn the thing on, not turn it off.”
She had a point. But the way the phone was designed, that is how you turned it on – hold down a button labelled “End.” For the engineer who designed the keyboard, this made sense. For my mom, it was madness.
The world is full of such products – wonderfully engineered, but poorly designed with no eye for how the average person might use it. This highlights a certain quality that isn’t taught in business schools but can make a huge difference for companies developing new products: empathy.
Empathy is the ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes. It’s far more than just being a nice person. If properly developed, empathy can give you and your company a distinct competitive edge. Negotiating a contract, dealing with workplace conflicts, coming up with a marketing campaign, or dreaming up the next must-have consumer gadget all require the ability to see the world through eyes that aren’t your own.
Sadly, managers and human resource departments too often neglect the interpersonal skills that are so essential to achieving results. Along with other aptitudes such as story-telling and creativity, empathy is underappreciated by many in the corporate board room. The fact that we even call them “soft” skills implies that they’re less important.
To be fair to business schools, it’s difficult to teach empathy. There is no formula to follow, no textbook that explains how it works. While some people may possess empathy more naturally than others, it’s still a trait that can be developed by those willing to put in the effort.
In the design of consumer products, for example, the most important questions to ask are, “How would someone else use this product? How would they look at it? Would they be able to figure it out easily?” Purposely asking these questions puts you on the path to developing empathy.
My job requires a good deal of travel and staying in hotels, and I’m always amazed by the lack of care taken to see the world through the eyes of the traveller. Why are the bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and body wash in the shower labelled with such tiny letters, when they’re meant to be used where people aren’t wearing glasses and lighting is dim? Why is there no easily accessible plug-in near the bed, where people want to charge their phones and use their laptops? Why are the clock radios almost always cheap pieces of garbage with alarms too complicated to set?
The reason is that not enough hotel room designers bother to empathize with the guests, especially on the small but important details to make a person feel really comfortable.
The economic benefits of empathy go beyond good product design. Think about negotiating with a company from which you purchase supplies or services. Has care been taken to research the financial constraints that may be pressing on the supplier? Maybe costs for the supplier have risen – or maybe they’ve fallen. How might the supplier perceive your company? Purposely and actively empathizing with the person on the other side of the negotiating table will give you an advantage.
Think, too, about conflict resolution in the workplace. The most common problems arise when workers don’t see eye-to-eye – that is, they cannot (or will not) empathize with the other. Empathy doesn’t require one to agree with the viewpoint of another, but it does require the effort to consider how someone else sees the problem.
The ability to see the world through the eyes of others is an economic imperative. If empathy were given the attention it deserves, companies would find new ways to please their customers. Innovators would dream up systems that save time and money. Conflicts would be resolved more easily. And maybe – just maybe – engineers would design products that are simple to use. Even by my mom.
Todd Hirsch is the Calgary-based chief economist of ATB Financial, and author of The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline.