Traditional thinking tells us that four plus four equals eight. Put another way, if you add good products and good customer service, you get happy customers. In school we’re taught that success is about avoiding failure with flawless execution — choices are typically limited and do not always take into consideration the actual needs of the customer. Design thinking embraces the exact opposite. An emphasis on choice helps learners better understand problems, which leads to better decision making.

Contrary to a traditional design process, design thinking focuses on framing the problem before solutions are explored. Design thinking started as a process to design better products, but now it’s used to design tools, processes and experiences. Design thinking is not about a practice just for designing and it’s not about thinking, it’s about doing. In design thinking we value trial and error, failing fast and lots of testing in the most lightweight way we can. It’s also about making sure we’ve got the right problem to solve.

So, if we want to get to eight — in other words, we want happy customers — we must be open to different ways to get there. Yes, we could add four plus four, but how else can you get to eight? Two plus six, four times two, 12 minus four and so on. The opportunities to get there are beyond tradition.  The overall concept is that design thinking is not a one-and-done process, but something you may go through several times for a successful process improvement or product.

Customer Empathy

Deep customer empathy is the first pillar of design thinking. It’s about truly understanding the customer and articulating their pain point, as well as its root cause. To do this, you must observe your customers, listen carefully to them and look at the data that tells the customer’s story. You can get unexpected insights looking for challenges they face.

As an example of how deep customer empathy results in success, a popular paint company wanted to make their products more appealing to women. They observed women using paint cans and painting in their homes. You might recognize this problem: When they poured paint into the tray to paint from, the paint cans made a mess, often dripping down to the floor. The customers would never have asked for someone to change that, even though they were certainly frustrated about the mess it made. Because of the insights gained from observation, the company created easy-to-carry and pour square jugs with a screw top that eliminates the need to pry open with tools. It’s easy to store and prevents rust. The new design delighted women purchasers and the company saw their sales triple in the first year.

By year-end 2003, the new design accounted for half of their sales. All inspired from getting to know the customer better.

How to Gain Customer Empathy

Margaret Mead, an anthropologist, author and speaker, once said, “What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things.” In design thinking we call this “do, say, think.” We watch what people do more than what they say, and trust these more than what you think. When gaining empathy, we want to watch what people do more than what they say for both explicit and implicit behavior.

Explicit behavior defines what the customer is doing and saying, expressed and observable behavior that is stated plainly and is typically controllable. Implicit behavior is less controlled and more emotional — better at predicting behaviors and defining the overall problem.

An effective method to gain empathy is called a “follow me home,” where you watch the customer use a product or go through a process in their own environment, possibly their own home. It’s important to quietly observe and not intervene. It can be challenging to not step in and help if you see something go wrong. For instance, we’ve had times where a customer is interviewed and says, “I love your product! It’s so easy to use!” Then in the “follow me home” exercise, they grumble and even curse at that “easy to use” product. Gathering customer empathy can show an entirely different idea of how your customers really feel about your product.

A good example of explicit versus implicit behavior happens in an episode of “I Love Lucy.” The episode, titled “Job Switching,” contains a scene where Lucy and Ethel work at a chocolate factory. Their manager checks on their progress after a very stressful and unsuccessful candy wrapping session. Lucy and Ethel had been frantically meeting the quota, but the manager didn’t observe them doing the job. When she returns and all the candy is gone, she assumes the job is done. The manager only knows what Ethel tells her, since she didn’t observe the job directly (though the viewer knows that Lucy’s mouth is stuffed with chocolates). Observed behavior can be very different from (and preferable to) self-reporting. We love surveys, right? But can you imagine how Lucy would have responded to a survey?

Surveys can be a good place to start because they give you a general sense of your customers’ pain points and reasoning. You can get a high volume of user feedback quickly and easily with surveys, and they enable you to take qualitative data and quantify them.

However, try to go beyond the survey since they do have limitations. Surveys are attitudinal versus behavioral. Your customer may want to be agreeable and more positive than they might feel, even if it’s in writing.  Surveys report what users say/think, not what users do. In general, people are terrible at remembering what they’ve done, and even worse at predicting what they will do in the future.

Techniques to Improve the Customer Experience

It’s essential to use different techniques to pull all the data together and determine what is valuable and worth spending time on to better the customer experience. One technique is an affinity map, which helps recognize gaps in your processes and procedures and get a deeper level of understanding. It’s like visually capturing a conversation while encouraging thinking outside the box — pie in the sky, if you could do this without any limitations, how would you do it? It allows you to organize many ideas gathered from brainstorming and structure them into groups, based on their connections.

When you want to get a team of people un-stuck or have them think more reflectively about a topic, mind mapping is a great tool. It can help visually capture a conversation and encourage nonlinear thinking and shared vision. Mind maps can also help you see the connections between different themes and data points.

So, how does a mind map work? Find a large whiteboard or flipcharts and two colored markers — one for the text and one for arrows and circles. Write the main idea/phrase/question in the center and circle it. Ask the group questions that allow them to explore the central idea: “What’s important about this?” and “What is X idea made of?” and “Why should we consider this idea?” Capture the entire conversation, confirming the link back to the original idea. Last, be sure to make connections between related ideas.

This article provided an overview of two methods for gathering and synthesizing information about the issue you’re solving for. But that’s just the beginning. There are so many ways to engage others and develop new ideas. The key is to get started and have fun!