Don’t Strategize, Empathize
by Irene Etzkorn

“Who designs these things?”

We’ve all asked the question. Usually, it’s as we’re struggling with impenetrable packaging or trying in vain to turn off the mysteriously blaring burglar alarm.

Countless products, instructions and services are made more difficult than necessary because real-world considerations were overlooked. The more luxurious your car, the more likely it is that the owner’s manual will fill your entire glove compartment and you still won’t be able to reset the clock. Despite much time, money and attention having been paid to the design of your owner’s manual, the circumstance of its use got short shrift.

The “design in a vacuum” phenomenon also explains how microscopic instructions have evolved on medications. Over-the-counter medications now have labels that wrap around the bottle and unfurl to reveal a wealth of information. Although marvels of printing technology, these scrolls have type so small that even those in the best of health couldn’t possibly read them.

Every day, throughout corporate America, task forces are formed to examine processes, streamline interfaces and redesign documents with an eye towards “simplifying” them. I know since I have worked as a Simplification expert for the past twenty years tackling complexity in financial services, telecommunications, and health care. Why then does complexity still abound whether you are booking a flight, buying a vacuum or calling a bank? Why is it so rare for a product or service to be launched with simplicity baked into it? Why is it always a case of retrofitting?

I maintain the missing ingredient is an unlikely one — empathy. Companies tackle simplification as a science rather than as an art. They measure the length of customer service calls down to hundredths of a second, run readability formulas counting syllables and monitor mouse-clicks by the millions. Afraid to let common sense prevail, companies rely on numbers to judge clarity and usefulness — two attributes that defy quantification. As a result, companies send out documents that they tout as being written at a sixth-grade reading level when in fact no college-educated person understands them.

Many companies pay lip-service to the “human-side” of the equation by running focus groups. Yet, focus groups are notoriously bad predictors of actual purchasing behavior as evidenced by the scores of failed movies, perfumes and theme restaurants.

What is needed is for companies to empathize with their customers. By empathizing, I mean imagining the context in which the customer will use, read or buy the product and designing the product to reflect the customer’s needs, first and foremost.

I can hear the cries of outrage now. Don’t we save money by putting access to a live person as the last option on a telephone tree? While you might cut cost in the short-term, you also sever customer loyalty.

Customers want to do business with a company that anticipates and responds. Which cell phone plan is the cheapest option for me? My phone company knows. True simplification is anticipating what information or advice might apply and offering it to me. In that way, I am dealing with a filtered set of data that is less voluminous and more applicable. Over time, I am more willing to provide information about myself as I see that it results in a more refined dialogue.

So how can companies create an empathetic design, not just a functional, cost-effective one? I suggest three actions:

  • Anticipate real-world circumstances. Make the dosage instructions large and clear.

  • Cater to customer wants, not just needs. Include a message on my bill if I would benefit from another plan or product. Build in flexibility, don’t pigeonhole. Let me choose what day of the month I pay my mortgage.

  • Use the power of the Internet. Help customers cut through options to facilitate a comfortable decision.

Ironically, adding common sense to the design process would not add cost. In fact, it would reduce cost by leading to fewer dissatisfied customers and increase demand by generating positive word-of-mouth.

According to psychologists, empathy is considered a highly-evolved emotion, one which children learn later rather than earlier in their development. Is corporate America ready to reach a new era in its evolution?


Irene Etzkorn is Practice Advisor, Simplification of Siegel & Gale in New York. Siegel & Gale is a strategic branding firm that has been in business for more than thirty years. Siegel & Gale creates simple, relevant, compelling branding programs to drive business success. Visit www.siegelgale.com for more.

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