Corporate empathy

Building human-centered environments for innovation


This is the face of a new mobile worker. It’s not a techie boarding a Google bus while checking email on his way to work. Sebastian works for Viña Santa Rita — a winery based in Chile. He manages real-time information while working in the vineyard to ensure that the winery can deliver wine to 70 countries around the world.

“You plant a grapevine and you want that grapevine to produce for fifty years; if you make a mistake, it’s a fifty-year mistake.”

How might we provide mobile strategy for winery workers in Chile? How might we provide robust technology in remote places? How might we help Viña Santa Rita scale its operations to support global demand? These are some of the questions our design team asks before diving into ethnographic interviews with customers. The first step in providing something of value to winery workers is to gain empathy for them by putting ourselves in their shoes, to observe their environment, and to uncover unanticipated needs. This critical step lays at the heart of human-centered design.

Full disclosure before you read any further: I work at Citrix — a company that provides mobile workstyle solutions to businesses like Viña Santa Rita. When I joined Citrix as a lead designer in the Customer Experience group, Sebastian’s story challenged my core assumptions about who our customers were and what they needed from us. Coming from the Stanford d.school, where the emphasis is on uncovering human needs before generating ideas and building prototypes, and Design for Change — a global movement to empower communities to design solutions to difficult problems, I was excited about this challenge of deep diving into our customers’ worlds to seek new insights and opportunities.

While at Stanford, I’ve collaborated with Adam Royalty — the lead design research investigator at the d.school, who studies the impact of design thinking and culture change in large companies across the U.S. We both have backgrounds in education and have worked on community engagement efforts in India in the past, and now have found ourselves in the corporate world focusing on design thinking for a different type of community.

Design thinking — a tool we embraced in different ways to advance the notion of human-centered design within our organizations. It always begins with gaining empathy for someone, followed by brainstorming a large number of possible solutions, then rapidly prototyping & testing them with potential users. It’s a highly iterative process that yields products that someone actually needs and wants to use.

Fun fact: a few years ago, Adam and I found ourselves in Rajasthan, where we visited the Lake Palace from the James Bond movie Octopussy, Adam got his first face-slapping massage at a barber shop, and we worked on Design for Change in Ahmedabad, Gujrat — home to India’s National Institute of Design and Gandhi’s ashram.

Citrix is not the only company that embraced human-centered design over the past decade. Citrix belongs to a corporate club of companies along with Nordstrom, Fidelity, and JetBlue. What do these non-tech companies have in common with Citrix? Just like us, Fidelity, JetBlue and Nordstrom care deeply about their customer experience. For example, Nordstrom, sometimes referred to as a 100 year-old startup, is working on creating an online customer experience for its millennial shoppers that should be comparable to Nordstrom’s famous personal service in its brick & mortar stores. To achieve this goal, Nordstrom innovation team follows methods from human-centered design, more specifically design thinking.

Every year all four companies get together in person to exchange knowledge about our innovation efforts, to participate in hands-on workshops, and to share case studies about the impact of design thinking on our businesses, such as the ones about Nordstrom’s millennial shoppers or Citrix’ mobile workers. Adam and I just got back from one of such get-togethers in Seattle, WA. The summit began with each organization reflecting on our own innovation practices.

Sketch credit: Deb Aoki

Sharing and learning with the other organizations in our community has opened up a new way of thinking for us: we are building new corporate environments for innovation and innovators who embrace human-centered design. Previous research on corporate creativity and innovation done by Harvard Business School professor, Teresa Amabile, shows a strong connection between the environmental factors (innovation goals, resources, and leadership) and employee creativity. She argues that innovation comes from a supportive environment empowering the creativity of individuals and teams. Our question is how do we construct environments that support the methods and mindsets of design thinking and related processes? Our first step is empathy.

We want to empathize with our customers, our coworkers, and our peers in other companies who practice innovation in a human-centered way like us.

Each member of our community agreed to host a two or three day innovation summit. Each organization sends employees, leadership, and members of innovation teams. The main goals are 1) to share insights about applying design thinking and 2) to deepen the innovation capacities of employees and leadership. Nordstrom hosted the second round in Seattle this winter (though it was in the mid 60’s and felt like summer the whole time).

View from Nordstrom headquarters in Seattle

From there we spent the rest of the first day diving into advanced design tools. Most of the summit participants were employees that already had an introductory design thinking workshop back home. These tools, facilitated by the more experienced innovation coaches included bodystorming, six variations on synthesis, and a new framework for prototyping.

The second day kicked off with a tour of Nordstrom’s fantastic Customer Experience Center. This space inside a non-descript South Seattle warehouse features a “replica” of a retail story complete with clothes and a checkout counter. Here they can prototype complete shopping experiences before moving them to actual stores.

In the afternoon, we participated in an unconference that allowed us to convene in small groups and connect on hot topics. These topics were captured throughout the first day and a half on post-its and placed on the unconference wall. Some of the hottest of the hot topics were: encouraging failure, redesigning performance reviews, sketching, the role of leadership in design thinking, incubators, and how design thinking connects with lean startup and continuous improvement.


Some of the big themes that ran through the two days were:

How empathy evolves in the organization. It has been clear from the very first community phone call, that each organization is using human-centered design in a different way. This makes sense because we all have different innovation goals. One thing that is constant is the importance of empathy. Empathy for our customers (existing and potential) is a value that is spreading across all the organizations. Furthermore, empathy for our coworkers who are going through design workshops helps make us better teachers.

Variation helps create new methods. It was evident from the summit that each company had developed its own methods for executing design. Because we were split into cross-organizational teams for most of the workshop, participants and facilitators got to experience new techniques. One group did a brainstorm using a Nordstrom technique of “judging ideas forward,” then synthesized using a JetBlue journey mapping procedure, and finally constructed a prototype using a Fidelity building framework. Although each method was interesting and elicited ideas of how to make even more methods, it highlighted the fact that design is more than just the methods, it is taking on mindsets. In other words, everyone saw that there is no one right method, there is no one right process. Many techniques work. What they have in common is a shared collection of mindsets.

Aligning “risk takers and space makers.” We love this phrase that Nordstrom uses. It highlights the role of leadership has for making space for the folks on the ground taking risks to uncover the next big idea. More work needs to be done, but we started laying out different models for leadership to support creative employees. And for creative employees to provide exciting outcomes for leadership.


Each organization is building specific environments carved out to support design work, customer-focused innovation & innovators. For example, Citrix and Fidelity are working on internal incubators that enable teams to work like lean startups. These new environments have a different set of norms and practices that facilitate the shift from traditional work to lean startup. One of the biggest — and most motivating — changes for teams is learning how to keep the customer front and center throughout the process. Their first step…is empathy.

This is an on-going experiment with corporate empathy — stay tuned for updates from us on how it develops...

Authors: Olga Dotter & Adam Royalty