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Empathy the cornerstone of consumer research

As global competition for both customers and talent heats up, enlightened companies are realising that being a good corporate citizen doesn't just benefit the community and the world. In the long run, it benefits the company itself because customers are drawn to companies that are authentically committed to social innovation. Employees are attracted to organisations with a strong sense of purpose.
Tom Kelley
Tom Kelley, partner at world-renowned design and innovation firm IDEO, and best-selling author of the Art of Innovation and 10 Faces of Innovation, says, "If you want to win the talent wars of the 21st century, it's not enough to make a good profit. You have to have a visible purpose-and uphold that purpose with actions, not just words."

Kelley, who will be one of the key note speakers at The Nedbank Digital Edge Live 2014 in September says it is important to start by making empathy the cornerstone of consumer research.

In organisations with millions of customers, or in industries serving the broad public, there is a temptation to stereotype or de-personalise the customer. They become a number, a transaction, a data point on a bell curve, or part of a composite character built on market segmentation data."That type of shortcut might seem useful for understanding the data, but we've found that it doesn't work well when designing for real people," says Kelley.

He says the notion of empathy and human-centeredness is still not widely practiced in many corporations. "Business people rarely navigate their own websites or watch how people use their products in a real-world setting. And if you do a word association with 'business person', the word 'empathy' doesn't come up much," notes Kelley.

Empathy in terms of creativity and innovation is the ability to see an experience through another person's eyes, to recognise why people do what they do. "Gaining empathy can take some time and resourcefulness, but there is nothing like observing the person you're creating something for to spark new insights. And, when you specifically set out to empathise with your end user, you get your own ego out of the way. "We've found that figuring out what other people actually need is what leads to the most significant innovations. In other words, empathy is a gateway to the better and sometimes surprising insights that can help distinguish your idea or approach."

Kelley says companies can use this kind of anthropological research in the field to gather inspiration at the beginning of a project, to validate concepts and prototypes generated throughout the design process, and to rekindle momentum when ideas or energy are running low. "This kind of hands-on research can even change your understanding of who the end user is."

He says anyone can do it. "Everyone can improve their empathy skills with a little practice. You may find you'll get some of your best ideas by doing so."

The days of just using benchmarking when you want to innovate are a thing of the past. One needs to question the current way of doing things or seek out new insights - not just copy and paste. "The story needs to start not with benchmarking, but with a company or brand seeking to understand the customers they want to attract, and then committing to improving their relationship with them," concludes Kelley.

See Tom Kelley in action at the Digital Edge Live 2014 on 30 September at the Vodadome. For more information visit

Germaine Dunn

011 555 3863

Digital Edge 2014 Partners:

Headline Sponsor: Nedbank
Presenting Partner: Adobe
Category Partner: GraphicMail
Media Partners:, eNCA, Mail & Guardian, Memeburn, Techsmart, Your Business Magazine


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NATIVE VML is a digitally-led full-service marketing agency that strives to forge deep relationships between its clients and their customers.
Read more: Adobe, IDEO, Tom Kelley