You might be feeling a bit of stress right about now. Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday are all reminders that it is time to buy gifts for the loved ones in your life. The stress comes from that fear that they will open your gifts with anticipation on their faces only to see their excitement fade as they see what is beneath the wrapping.
The difficulty in buying gifts is that you really need to understand someone else in order to do it well. What do they want? What do they need? What will they use regularly? What will make them think fondly of you because of what you have gotten them?
It turns out that the same questions are actually crucial for being a good innovator. Often, innovators are looking for a killer app, a great new technology, or a brilliant business plan that will disrupt a whole industry. But, truly successful innovations rest on empathy rather than technology.
Consider ride sharing services like Uber and Lyft. The technology in these products is minimal. Indeed, when Uber and Lyft left the market in Austin, Texas after losing a high-profile referendum, they were quickly replaced by other services that offered substantially the same service in a different app.
Ride sharing apps succeeded, because they understood what people really needed. They recognized that there were many people interested in earning a little extra money driving and that there were many people who needed inexpensive rides. Except in certain cities like New York, taxis are hard to find, unreliable, and expensive. Companies like Uber and Lyft empathized both with potential drivers and users and completely disrupted the livery industry.
A growing body of research on empathic design suggests that innovators benefit when they have experiences that allow them to get first-hand experience with the problems faced by users. For example, studies demonstrate that designers do a better job developing tents when they first try to erect existing models in the dark (to simulate arriving at a campsite at night) or under a sprinkler (to simulate rain). Similarly, they are more successful creating innovative alarm clock designs when they first play with clocks wearing gloves (to simulate having arthritis) or wearing dark glasses (to simulate low vision).
You may not always have an opportunity to create these extreme experiences for yourself, but you still have a chance to engage in empathic design. You can start this holiday season as you prepare to give gifts.
Rather than wandering through stores or browsing internet sites looking for interesting products at a good price, start by placing yourself in your recipient's shoes for a day. What does that person do each day? What limitations do they have? Are they the kind of person who would never shop for a luxury for themselves? What can you do for them that they would never do for themselves?
This skill is precisely the one you need when you are preparing to innovate. Rather than thinking about a disruptive technology, think about making someone's life better and easier. Put yourself in the shoes of your customers. Find the things that they have difficulty doing and then explore ways to fix that.
Even though this seems like straightforward advice, few companies do it well. Many innovators focus on what they would like themselves rather than understanding the daily experiences of their customers and users. The more you can integrate new products into the lives that people already lead, the more likely your innovation is to be adopted and engaged regularly.
This year, turn your holiday stress into an exercise in innovation.