I am a big fan of OXO home products. The brand began as a line of kitchen tools and has since expanded to products for every room in the home. But while its can opener feels nice to hold and the sleek design of its storage containers meet my (admittedly snobby) aesthetic standards, the OXO origin story is the part of the brand I love most. 

Innovation from Love and Empathy

Company founder Sam Farber designed OXO’s first product for his wife, Betsey. While cooking together, her arthritis made using an old-fashioned metal vegetable peeler a major struggle. Through exploration, countless prototypes and tireless testing, they finally paired a wide, thermoplastic, non-slip grip handle with a sharper blade. Their now-iconic design singlehandedly changed the industry standard for more effective, user-friendly kitchen utensils forever.

I have told this story in countless design thinking and prototyping workshops, and the thing I love most about it is always the same: an industrywide innovation was born from love and empathy. Sam and Betsey created a better product experience for everyone by:

  • Empathizing with someone who was experiencing pain from the status quo, and
  • Designing a better experience suited to the specific needs of that person

Beneficial innovation for everyone. Worldwide. Henceforth.

How Open Are We to Embracing Real Change?

As a design researcher, I am always thinking of empathy. But in these recent weeks and months, I have been thinking about empathy on a much larger scale. Namely, the responsibility that people demonstrate for others – or don’t. The empathy people feel for others – or don’t. How good we are at listening to and internalizing experiences and perspectives that are not our own. How open we are to embracing real change and initiating transformation in light of the new things we learn.

In all my years consulting for experience design in a huge array of industries, I have come to anticipate six phases throughout the lifecycle of any innovation project. I’m calling them the 6Ds.

  1. Desire to be “truly innovative” as industry leaders
  2. Deference to data-driven analytics over empathy-driven insight
  3. Defensive pushback against new learnings
  4. Derailment when innovation also requires a paradigm or infrastructure shift
  5. Diluted final execution to accommodate compromise, cost limitations or politics
  6. Disappointing adoption because #5

We can unpack some of the many ways my team navigates these project pitfalls in time. But for now, I want to address the SINGLE BEST TOOL we engage from end to end; holding empathy for the user at the core of all we do.

My team makes concerted efforts to lead our work with these kinds of user-driven practices:

  • We practice active listening throughout our research — rather than listening to respond, we listen to understand
  • We ask open-ended questions to clarify or dig deeper when we don’t understand
  • We sit quietly to give users space to think and share further
  • We feign ignorance – if someone brings up something we already know about, regardless of how familiar we are, we invite them to say more so we can understand their perspective
  • We accept what we hear and observe at face value from the participant’s view as truth, working to understand their experience and not to circumvent it with our own
  • Whenever possible, we immerse ourselves in their world to experience firsthand
  • When we bring our learnings back to the studio, we fill our work space with our users’ presence
  • We post photos of our participants across our project room so we can refer to them by name and their individual experiences
  • We eliminate “I think” statements from the project room and instead quote our users’ words, making sure their voices are heard through the entire design process. 
  • When we’re unsure, we go back to the tapes of our conversations rather than inferring with our own fallible memories or interpretations
  • When we have a prototype in hand, we circle back for iterative feedback so we don’t veer from the true need
  • We strive to embrace solutions that will meet the need at hand but also elevate and change the game — even solutions that seem radical or impossible. Our company name is Moonshot* for crying out loud!

By employing practices like this, we are able to address a problem from the inside, folding in the voices of those most affected and shining light on their firsthand experience so we can best understand the context and hidden roadblocks, current shortcomings and key needs that require attention. Once we have this deeper understanding of the root reasons a problem exists (or “the WHY”) we can more effectively address them and make real impact in ways that matter.

Empathy in Action

When they employed gender-balanced budgeting in its policy design, Swedish cities famously reversed how they prioritize snow removal and in doing so not only created more equitable experiences for their more frequently neglected citizens, but reduced wintertime injury rates and their related costs by three times, city-wide.

Many of the most innovative cities in the world have been adopting long overdue empathetic and anthropologic research approaches like this for their city planning. This excellent read explores this trend in implementing more holistic and effective processes that “identify people impacted by a problem or situation and develop a deep understanding of how they experience it” in order to design for it. And more often than not, like our OXO founder, designing for those who suffer most brings positive change to everyone as a whole.

So what now?

I have been watching the 6Ds unfold nationwide as we face simultaneous crises as a nation.

And I believe we have two choices. We can talk big about what ultimately needs to happen and then defer, be defensive, derail, dilute and ultimately come to very disappointing conclusions.

Or we can embrace empathy. We can witness how painful the metal vegetable peeler is. We can learn from the experiences of the people who hurt from it most. We can bring their voices to the forefront to solve the problems at hand and make something better. If we seek to understand, open our minds to embrace something beyond the status quo and do the hard work, we too can build a kitchen tool that works more effectively, causes less pain, looks more beautiful and is nicer for everyone to hold.

Beneficial innovation. Worldwide. Henceforth.

* “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.” – JFK