Using empathy

This blog post is in response to a number of requests I've received for more information after presenting on the subject of design and empathy over the past few weeks. Some of it has been touched on in earlier posts, but I thought I'd create a new single piece on what I've been presenting on to make it easier to follow.


Below is an image showing the entire framework I presented recently.

I will address each piece in order. The big difference between this approach and other approaches is that it places the end client/customer at the forefront of the process. This means your aim is to gain insight into their lives and build products/services/solutions from that insight. What this also means is that you have to "leave your solutions at the door" when engaging them since they will only get in your way and screw everything up. In addition, this means that you aren't going to build something simply because your boss, manager, investor, or board member tells you to. You are going to build things that you know will help your clients.


I start the presentation by getting the participants to place themselves in groups of 4 or 5 and sit them around a table. They are given sharpies, post-it notes, and a big piece of paper. I then ask them to draw a boat. The boat can represent anything - since it is a metaphor - but lately I've simply asked them to imagine that their boat is their company or organization (for Butterfly groups I typically say that they themselves are the boat). We then write down where we are trying to go (islands), what is holding us back (anchors), and what works today to move us forward (winds). Much of the interesting stuff in this activity comes out in the q & a session where certain things pertain have written down are explored for meaning.

Sailboat itself was inspired by an innovation game by Luke Hohmann called "Speedboat". We adapted and changed some of the pieces in order to gain the insights we are after.

Note that this activity is really aimed at gaining empathy and insight. So, if you aren't gaining these things from this activity do another activity. This is a good method, but it's only good if it works.

Value Proposition Canvas

The connection between the sailboat activity and the Value Proposition Canvas (more here) is that from the themes that emerge from customer/client insight we can begin to learn what kind of "jobs" people are trying to do, what pains they experience trying to do those jobs, and also what they gain from doing those jobs. This, in turn, can help us begin to think about what kind of Products/Services we could start building which either decrease pains and/or increase gains. This step aims to ensure that there is a product-problem fit.

The goal here is to translate what you've learned into something useful for you and your team. What problems are you interested in solving? How do you think you could help? What problems shouldn't you solve?

Business Model Canvas

Based on what we filled in on the Value Proposition Canvas, we can now start to build our Business Model Canvas (more here). The Business Model Canvas assists in building out the components required to ensure that there is a product-market fit. Essentially, can the venture be profitable or, at minimum, break even. This part is tricky since there can frequently be a product-problem fit but the overall solution is not sustainable from an economic perspective.

Here the mission is to make a viable case for your solution. Note too that the Value Proposition, Customer Relationship, Channels, and Revenue Stream will appear to your client/customer as your entire offering to them as it includes not only what you are providing to them, but also how you are reaching them and how much they may have to pay.

Tying it all together

There is a lot more detail that I could go into, but the intent of this post was to illustrate the overall framework, as well as provide some links in order for people to learn more. I am always open to questions, so fire away!

One last thought, and it pertains to the arrows in between the steps. For me the sailboat game and the two canvases are very helpful tools, but much of the real thinking and action takes place in the arrows. Let me explain: the arrows in these types of diagrams represent time and thinking. As illustration see the image below.

Between each of these "steps" is a lot of debate, argument, circling back, failure, and success within your teams. It's not engineering, it's creation.