Designing for
Empathy and Retention

Five lessons from an intimate evening with
IDEO’s top designers


Ok, describing the scene as intimate isn’t completely truthful…

More accurately, Zendesk’s underground town hall auditorium was a flurry of activity last Wednesday. Hundreds of designers, marketers, and developers gathered to throw back beers, nom pizza, and vie for a good spot to hear Skye Lee, IDEO’s Portfolio Director, and Blaise Bertrand, Partner and Industrial Design Director, shed light on the ins-and-outs of their legendary user-centric design approach.

As the presentation kicked into full swing I frantically scribbled notes, trying to capture the evening’s key themes (and Blaise’s particular brand of French charm). It was difficult to keep up; each of the duo’s points held the best design advice IDEO’s leadership has to offer.


“We need to understand what will delight people, and then go out and find the technology or business model to make that happen.” — Blaise Bertrand
Partner and Industrial Design Director, Blaise Bertrand, explains it’s a designer’s responsibility to “Zoom In and Zoom Out,” viewing problems from “the millimeter to the kilometer”

IDEO wants everything from chairs to cellphone accessories to connect with their audience on an emotional level. What makes IDEO such a successful product development firm lies in the difference between “Tech Push” and “Tech Pull.”

Tech Push:

“Many companies invent the technology, and then try to push it into the world regardless of the market or users.” — Blaise Bertrand

Tech Pull:

Only after IDEO designers fully understand and empathize with a problem do they investigate the software and hardware necessary to create an effective solution.

Understanding the problem always starts with researching the audience, but it’s not about “just talking to people.” IDEO designers go to extreme lengths to experience problems firsthand before they start concepting solutions.

How far are they willing to go? Once, an IDEO designer researching how to improve hospital visits, admitted himself into the ER and recorded the entire experience. The resulting video showed how much time patients spend looking up at boring ceiling tiles — a unique perspective you wouldn’t think of until experiencing the environment for yourself. “Experiencing it develops empathy,” Blaise explained, “which leads to innovation.”


“Paranoia can be stifling. Open up your ideas. If someone
else does something better, build off of it.” — Skye Lee

It’s abundantly clear the IDEO team doesn’t believe in “stealth mode.” To them, a solution’s value doesn’t lie in the idea, but in your team’s ability to make the idea reality.

“Anyone can come up with an idea. It’s about bringing it to the market in a considerate and meaningful way.” — Blaise Bertrand

If you accept that value isn’t found in the idea, but in the execution, you can begin to focus on “creating something tangible that people can identify and respond to, provoking new conversations.”

“There’s an inherent generosity in designing innovation. True innovation is quick, and designers should be generous in nature with their ideas.” — Blaise Bertrand

Being generous with your ideas opens up possibility for organic collaboration and innovation between individuals, teams, and even competitors. Skye thought Elon Musk’s decision to open Tesla Motor’s patents was an important example of sharing ideas and intellectual property to move the innovation of an entire industry forward.


“A company might have the desire to innovate, but do they have the right structure? The right DNA?” — Blaise Bertrand
IDEO moves fast. Skye holds up one of their “prototypes,” a cardboard cutout iPhone that IDEO employees stood behind to show how interactions and gestures would affect a children’s mobile game.

The desire to innovate isn’t enough. Companies also need to create an environment where innovation can thrive organically. This might mean employing methods counterintuitive to traditional business practices:

  • “Enable creative collisions”
    Many companies avoid disagreement or friction in favor of consensus. Innovation can only be achieved if you encourage constructive friction on your team. Give people permission to disagree, embrace the disagreement, then move the conversation forward from there.
  • “Consider the implications of what we’re doing”
    Designers have a social responsibility to consider how our creations will have an impact on the world.
  • “Don’t take yourself too seriously”
    Innovation is about being optimistic.

“Don’t be too comfortable with the knowledge you’ve acquired.” — Blaise Bertrand
Blaise and Skye answer audience questions, covering how to come up with radical new ideas and how to design for different form factors

No matter where you are in your life or career, you should constantly “cultivate observation and curiosity.”

Blaise remarked that everyone is familiar with ROI, but very few people quantify the value of ROL, or “Return on Learning.” It’s an “important perspective” to keep your eyes open, question your environment, and always be challenging your assumptions. Change through incremental improvements is often easier than seeking a “radical new idea.”


“We are all agents of change, we just need moments to act like it.” — Blaise Bertrand

My favorite quote of the evening. Actively changing your environment changes the way other people learn and collaborate in that environment. Open your eyes, get out there, and design something.

Thanks to the San Francisco Agile Marketing Meetup for gathering
leading designers, marketers, entrepreneurs, and VCs to
share their stories and advice with us each month


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