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Pro Tip: The critical and delicate relationship between design thinking and customer empathy


Achieving customer-centricity involves deeply understanding customer needs and fulfilling them better than anyone else. In turn, design thinking is foundational to staying in sync with customers. That said, it’s one challenge to understand consumers in all their irrational complexity, and another to transform that understanding into meaningful innovation of products and services.

The integration of human understanding is central to the empathy phase of any design thinking initiative. If stakeholders truly enter the minds, hearts and lives of customers, they can transition from “customer understanding” to meaningful empathy. As a result, deep human empathy becomes the heartbeat of design thinking and one of the core dimensions of its transformative power.

Notably, however, empathy doesn’t give consumers power to dictate design. While empathy is critical to design thinking and foundational to consumer understanding, it shouldn’t devolve into turning consumers into designers. If an organization leans too far to one side, and delegates critical decisions to the whim of consumers, things can go awry.

For example, in the late 80s, clear beverages were all the rage – so PepsiCo hopped on the bandwagon with Crystal Pepsi.

While research fueled confidence for a solid hit with a giddily projected 2% market share for the product, Crystal Pepsi never reached over 0.5%. What went wrong? In part, the company was so enthusiastic about the research that they ignored the chorus of internal concerns about product viability. In the end, those concerns were valid.

The lesson? It’s easy to confuse “giving the consumer a voice” with abdicating sound business judgment. Striking a delicate balance makes all the difference.

Pro Tip is a special feature for marketers in our community to share a specific tactic others can use to elevate their performance. You can submit your own here.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.

About The Author

Pro Tip: The critical and delicate relationship between design thinking and customer empathy 1

As Chief Innovation Officer (CInO) of Gongos, Inc., Greg is charged with accelerating the future of everything – from trends and foresights to product innovation and development, to the company’s growth and performance. Greg thrives on exploring societal and technological shifts that point to disruptive ways to create value for consumers and resilience for organizations. Greg leads the company’s Innovation Think Tank – a cross-generational team that fosters a culture of innovation and guides long-term strategy in shaping the decision intelligence space. A former research practitioner with over 20 years of experience under his belt, Greg is a visionary at heart. He believes our industry is in the midst of a revolution, and plans to help pave the way. He holds an M.A. in Humanistic and Clinical Psychology from the Michigan School of Professional Psychology, and a B.S. in Industrial Administration, Marketing and Finance Concentrations from Kettering University.

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