In previous article (Strefa PMI no 21, pages 30-31) you can read about the general concept of the empathy and how it works in the Design Thinking approach. In this article I would like to present the overview of the cases how the empathic methods were applied in different scenarios.

Shimano study case

In 2004, Shimano – Japanese multinational manufacturer of cycling components, was faced with a significant drop in sales of bicycle parts on the US market mainly in their high end racing and mountain bike segment. Shimano, as the company based on innovative technological solutions, has always put a lot of focus to identify the areas of the development of its products that will be the most promising and will guarantee an appropriate position on the market. This time it was clear that the forecasts and predictions have not worked and the company came across the situation when even innovative technological solutions did not generate sales and did not stimulate market trends. Shimano has decided to invite IDEO, an international design and consulting firm, to cooperate and to look at the problem in a more holistic way through the Design Thinking method.

The IDEO office proposed a non-standard approach to the issue related to the lack of demand for mountain bikes in the USA. The project started with the creation of an interdisciplinary team composed of specialists in technology, designers, engineers but also behavioral scientists, sociologists and people associated with sales and marketing. The team performed a detailed market research, surveys and also interviews with users were carried out. All of this allowed to observe an interesting trend.

Less is better!

One major outcome and insight was that 90% of interviewed Americans were no longer riding bikes whereas 90% of them did it as children. Interviewees, in their stories related to bicycles, often referred to their childhood memories when cycling was simple and stress free. Many people nostalgically remembered their first bicycle trips and the contact with nature. The bike was a synonym of good fun, independence, adventure and travel. So one may wonder why, despite these positive associations, adults did not ride bikes?

There was a very clear answer from the interviews. Children’s bicycles are easy to use, with their simple design they do not require continuous servicing and regulation whilst popular mountain bikes were packed with all kinds of novelties, derailleurs, shock absorbers, brakes, hydraulic, disc brakes and often even simple repairs require consultation with a service center. This stage of the project revealed the fact that almost everyone had a bicycle in their garage with a punctured tire or a broken chain. Getting it repaired would take too much hassle or was too expensive.

These conclusions turned out to be crucial for the next stages of the work under Design Thinking approach. The team began conceptual work on the low-tech bicycle.

The prototype, in its design, referred to classic bikes from years ago and was equipped with unrelenting tires, a hidden chain and automatic derailleurs.

Sales results exceeded the expectations of the entire team. Shimano together with IDEO and the rest of the project partners won the International Design Excellence Award for an innovative solution that contributed to the popularization of cycling in the USA. Shortly thereafter, fashion for casual bikes reached other parts of the globe.

Bank of America study case

Also in 2004 IDEO was challenged by Bank of America to find a new way to inspire people to open bank accounts. The bank was interested to see how IDEO’s human-centered approach to design would bring innovation to an industry that is typically considered as very conservative and unwilling to change. To accomplish the mission project team started observations across the country including speaking with people about their spending and banking habits. Again, an interesting pattern emerged. It turned out that the majority of people who were in charge of the household finance were intentionally rounding up the numbers in their checkbooks to make the addition easier.

“Keep the change”

Taking this observation into consideration along with the fact that many of these families had difficulty saving the money IDEO came up with a service idea. People could enroll in a savings account that would round up purchases made with debit cards. When customers paid with their bank cards they had the option of having each purchase rounded up to the nearest dollar and the difference depositing in a savings account just like throwing spare coins into a jar. This program became very popular not only among people who had trouble saving money. In fact, since the launch of it in September of 2005, more than 12.3 million customers have enrolled. On top of that, 60% of all new customers joined the program.

Faith Tucker, the former Senior Vice President & Product Developer at Bank of America was clearly proud of the emotional impact of this service saying: “There was an almost unexpected and very emotional effect from this new service … people who previously never had savings suddenly did … and it wasn’t the amount that mattered; even a small amount of money in their savings account gave them a sense of power and control over their finances.”

MRI machine study case

Now I would like to share a story from Doug Dietz, an industrial designer working at General Electric Healthcare for more than 20 years. A few years ago he was engaged in a project to design a brand new MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machine. Once the device was ready and delivered to the hospital one day he decided to visit the place to see his beautiful design live. While waiting in the corridor he noticed a young terrified patient with tears rolling down her face approaching the scan room. Soon an anesthesiologist was called in to apply sedative drugs.

Seeing the little girl overwhelmed with fear of the health examination in the scary tube became a turning point in the design approach of the MRI designer. This situation made him realize that in the eyes of a little girl his beautiful machine was just a grey brick with a hole which frightens little patients. At this very moment he also realized that he had to make a change.

Change the terrifying to terrific

Doug, being aware that the redesign of the MRI machine from scratch is not possible due to the funding’s limitations, decided to focus on the patient’s experience rather than on the equipment’s construction.

He and his team started to organize brainstorming sessions with kids and their parents which enabled them to transform the MRI machine into a kid’s adventure story in which the patient plays the leading role. Doug and his team applied decorative pictures to the outside of the machine and on literally every surface of the room, covering the equipment, floor, ceilings and walls. What is more, a script for the doctors has been created to narrate the story and to lead their patients through the adventure.

This solution might sound like a simple one. It is true, it is pretty simple and it brought remarkable results such as the dramatic decrease in the usage of sedative drugs on the youngest patients and significant improvement of their satisfaction. Doug’s personal greatest achievement however was when a little girl once asked her mother after the scan: “can we come back tomorrow?”.

Inspire Innovation!

The above cases are the examples proving that empathy plays a great deal when designing the innovative products and services. Conducting interviews with empathy, observation of people’s behavior and the real engagement with the user and focus on his experience with our product or service are crucial to gain the empathy and are fundamental starting point in the design. I believe that everyone is capable of being inspired towards creating innovative products and services by simple conversation, observation and willingness to improve other person’s experience.