Empathize with Your Customer

Learning Objectives

After completing this unit, you’ll be able to:

  • Describe the benefits of empathetic research.
  • Describe three types of empathetic research.
  • Understand when to use empathetic methods.

Dirty Anthropology: Dig In!

At the heart of customer-centric innovation is an appreciation for your customers—their powers, pitfalls, passions, and possibilities. You might be thinking, “I already know what my customers want, and I know the solution that we need to build. So let’s just build it.”

Remember that your customers ultimately decide if your solution makes a difference in their lives. Therefore, it’s a good idea to work with them to make sure that it actually does make a difference. But how?

You don’t need a PhD researcher nor the budget to hire one to understand your customers. It’s just a matter of walking in their shoes, talking to them, and listening. Your team can conduct what’s called empathetic research—a process of getting to know and understand your audience directly, like an anthropologist.

In this unit, we show you how. It doesn’t need to be a perfect scientific study. There is no right amount of discovery, only the right kind. The best guidance we can give is to empathize as much as you can within the time frame that you have. A lot is possible in just a few weeks. Most importantly, discovery never stops! Continuously ask, listen, and learn from your customers throughout the innovation process.

Who Is Your Customer, Really?

It’s time to think deeply about which customer segments give you the most useful information and insight into your organization’s challenges.

Let’s turn back to Aqua Blue and its goal to move toward a more delightful, stress-free experience that wins the hearts and minds of avid travelers. The company decides to focus its empathetic research on several groups.

  • Loyal guests who have spent 10 or more nights at Aqua Blue
  • Guests who were once loyal but haven’t booked in the past year to discover the reasons why they haven’t come back
  • Customers who are platinum-level loyalists in similar loyalty programs and have spent one or more nights at Aqua Blue

Above we talked about customers who use Aqua Blue's hotels, but the Aqua Blue innovation team identified a second population of “customer”—Aqua Blue employees involved in delighting, amazing, and serving their guests. Call center workers book reservations. Front desk staff manage a line of 20 guests trying to check in and out. Housekeeping staff have direct daily interaction with guests. It’s important to walk in all their shoes to understand how they serve them—their struggles, saves, and sentiments.

Three Ways to Dig In to Discovery

There are numerous empathetic research methods, and new ones are being created every day. For starters, we recommend using one or all the following easy techniques.

  • Embodying
  • Shadowing
  • Interviewing

Let’s learn a little more about each.


Photo of legs walking down a hall

It’s powerful to say to your customer: We heard your complaint, and we get it. We’ve been there, too. Sometimes the only way to understand an experience is to live it. Imagine this: To better empathize with hospital patients, designers from IDEO admitted themselves to the hospital to understand a patient’s view from the gurney (and record it!). Talk about a serious commitment to empathy.

Back at Aqua Blue, its innovation team would benefit from booking rooms at some of the hotels around the world to experience firsthand:

  • When do they experience friction?
  • When could they have been delighted but instead were disappointed?
  • When were they pleasantly surprised and impressed?

What is the variety of experiences you and your fellow dirty anthropologists should experience firsthand?


Shadowing involves observing alongside your customer and asking questions about their actions and comments to dig deeper into why they do what they do. This technique is valuable because often the designers of an experience don’t share the same characteristics as the customer.

Photo of things to pack for travel for a vacation

We recommend these best practices while shadowing.

  • Look for patterns—Take notice of everything. Something as mundane as ordering coffee or scribbling a note down on a piece of paper might not seem interesting. However, in observing when, why, and how the person did it, you might uncover opportunities for improvement.
  • Consider dominant environmental dynamics—If you’re observing internal employees, how is power brokered in their organization and how does that impact their day-to-day jobs. If shadowing your customers: Where are they and who’s in charge? Are they students who have to follow school rules? Are they patients who have to comply with strict hospital and medical policy? Or are they hotel guests being treated like royalty?
  • Observe the entire process—When trying to better understand a process, make sure that you’re including the full context of that process. If you want to make getting your driver’s license easier, spend a day in the Department of Motor Vehicles. Try to observe all aspects of the process, not just one or two parts. If trying to understand the check-in process, ask yourself when that process really begins and where it ends.
  • Take notes—Of course it’s awkward to follow someone around with a pen and paper. Come up with a discrete system to capture your observations and direct quotes. Your phone camera, sketchpad app, and an audio memo app are super useful. Or bring a scribe.
  • Prepare for technical issues—Make sure that your phone is charged! Bring a backup camera and chargers.


Having a simple conversation with the people who matter most is invaluable. Direct interviews are the best way to hear your customers’ current experiences in their own words, and what they’d like to experience in the future. During the discovery phase, conduct interviews with both key stakeholders and your customers.

Two people sitting close, discussing, in a cafe

Stakeholder Interviews

Think back to the first module, “Innovation Basics,” in which we discussed the stakeholder map for your innovation project. Part of the process of making these important individuals feel buy-in is to get their perspective through one-on-one interviews. An interview is their chance to share candid thoughts, concerns, and ideas. Ask them about their role, their personal view on the innovation goal, their ideas for the change they want to see, and anything they feel you need to know.

Customer Interviews

In customer interviews, focus your attention on uncovering the emotional and psychological drivers behind your end-users’ actions. Also, remember that your customers include employees.

First, think about which type of customers you want to meet. It’s important to establish this criteria upfront.

Aqua Blue, for example, decides that they want to speak to:

  • Loyal guests who travel for either business or leisure
  • Guests who were loyal but haven’t booked in over a year
  • People who travel frequently but never choose Aqua Blue
  • Front desk and concierge staff across Aqua Blue’s properties and competitors’ hotels.

Across all these groups, Aqua Blue ensures that it’s accounting for diversity across gender, ethnicity, and geography.

Golden Rules of Shadowing and Interviewing

While interviewing is certainly the most straightforward type of research, consider these best practices.

  • Get permission to record—If you want to record the conversation, whether voice or video, get approval from the interviewee first.
  • Keep things informal and human—Engage your participants as you would a friendly neighbor. Picture them as the world expert on their unique perspective. Focus on understanding what makes them tick and how they conceive of what they’re trying to accomplish.
  • Ask open-ended questions—Avoid “yes” or “no” questions based on your assumptions. Open-ended questions get participants talking. And just as Newton’s First Law would predict, after you get a person talking, they tend to keep talking.
  • Practice active listening—Stay in the present moment rather than trying to analyze during the interview. You have time to analyze when you listen to the recording or watch the video later.
  • Ask why—Listen closely for vague or general answers and immediately follow up by asking participants to explain more.
  • Don’t go it alone—Have a note taker, or use an audio or video recorder. You don’t want to miss an important point because you weren’t able to type or write fast enough.

How Much Is Enough?

How do you know when to stop researching? If you find yourself saying, “We’re not hearing anything new,” it’s probably time to move on.

It’s time to start sharing your stories to help others understand your customers. The entire team might have participated in one or two interviews or discovery activities, but everyone needs a shared understanding of the findings across all the research. Who are the protagonists in your innovation story and solution?

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