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Simplicity Begins with Empathy

To some extent, all companies today are in the “experience” business.

Simplicity Begins with Empathy


To some extent, all companies today are in the “experience” business. How do you manage and improve customer experience when every customer is unique and some interactions are life-changing while others are forgotten in an instant.

Think about why many customer experiences come up short: It’s because the customer is not getting what they expected or what they need from a product, service, or interaction with a company. Many things can get in the way of satisfaction—miscommunication, underperformance, complications, confusion—and as they do, the distance between company and customer grows. Simplicity is about removing those barriers and shortening that distance.

It’s also about helping business to get in touch with the reality of people’s situations and needs. Countless products, instructions and services are made unnecessarily difficult because real-world considerations were overlooked. We’ve all asked the questions, “who designs these things?!” or “who wrote this?!” Usually, it’s as we’re struggling with impenetrable packaging or trying to turn off an exasperating alarm. Similarly, the more luxurious your car, the more likely its owner’s manual will fill your entire glove compartment, and you still won’t be able to reset the clock. Despite the time, money and attention paid to the design of your owner’s manual, the circumstance of its use got short shrift.

We call it the “design-in-a-vacuum phenomenon.” It explains a lot of the world we live in, like how microscopic drug instructions evolved:although marvels of printing technology, the labels that wrap around over-the-counter medication bottles now unfurl with type so small that even those in the best of health can’t read them.

Every day, throughout corporate America, task forces examine processes, streamline interfaces and redesign documents with an eye towards “simplifying” them. Why then does complexity still abound whether you are booking a flight, buying a vacuum cleaner or calling a bank? Why is it always a case of retrofitting? Why is it so rare for a product or service to be launched with simplicity baked into it?

We maintain the missing ingredient is… (drumroll)… EMPATHY.

By empathizing, we mean imagining the context in which someone will buy, read, or use the product or service you’re offering—then designing that offering to reflect those needs, first and foremost. Since simplicity is the take-away experience of an interaction, it follows that the creator of the experience must “get inside the head” of the recipient to anticipate how the interaction will be perceived.

Here’s a dramatic example of what we’re talking about: Imagine you’re in a 25th floor hotel room, and the fire alarm goes off in the middle of the night. You study the “you are here” diagram on the back of the door to find out where the nearest exit is. In that context, it looks more like a maze than an escape map. Why isn’t it clearer, easier to figure out quickly? Because those safety instructions were developed in an entirely different context—in relaxed conditions, with plenty of light and time to study the instructions and decipher them. The instructions were created without empathy.

Try the same exercise when you are settling in for your next airplane ride and examine the safety card in the seatback—you’ll realize that it too may have seemed fine when it was created in an office but now is unintelligible in a real-world setting.

The only meaningful measure of the success of this document is to test it in a way that lets you evaluate both perception and comprehension in the proper context. You’d want to hand it out on several flights and get reactions from a range of passengers that are typical of any flight—elderly, children flying along, jaded road warriors, fearful first-time flyers, etc. Give them only a limited amount of time to interact with the card—after all, you don’t get to study before a sudden emergency. Ask them how they interpret the icons, what their eyes were drawn to first, which items seemed superfluous, etc.

Excerpted from the book Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity. Copyright (c) 2013 by Irene Etzkorn and Alan Siegel. Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.