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Empathy, not technology, is the mother of innovation, say IDEO and Google at Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford

Empathy, not technology, is the mother of innovation: that was the surprising lesson learnt by a group of MBA students and entrepreneurs at a workshop led by IDEO and Google Labs at Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford, Saïd Business School today.

In the workshop, called Reimagining Healthcare Through Design Thinking, Stacey Chang, Director, IDEO Healthcare Practice, and Astrid Weber, UX Researcher, Google Research – Accessibility, explained that innovation happens at the intersection of feasibility (what technology can achieve), viability (what makes business sense), and people (understanding the human experience). “If you don’t understand people, you won’t get anywhere,” said Chang, explaining that successful innovations answered needs at a level that people were often not able to articulate, and that the only way to develop empathy as innovators was to watch people in context and literally to put yourself in their position. For instance, Chang described how IDEO had approached improving the patient experience in one hospital by filming a day through a patient’s eyes. In a second project, IDEO had explored a plan for putting aeroplane passengers in bunk beds by mocking up a cardboard fuselage and inviting airline executives to lie down in it. 

Chang then handed round a variety of devices to ‘disable’ some of the participants, and challenged them to book travel tickets while their fellow participants observed them.

Participants reported that this was an uncomfortable exercise for both the ‘disabled’ person and the observers, but revealed that it had given them valuable insights into what a person with a disability might be thinking and feeling which better equipped them to develop products and services for this group. It is unlikely they would have gathered such insight from a traditional market research approach.

In the Oxford session today, one ‘disabled’ participant was asked how she felt at the end of the exercise in which she had ended up trying to use her smartphone with her elbows. She said positively that she felt ‘creative’ but, in fact, her team mates pointed out that she had been worrying out loud throughout the session about how, if she had a real disability, she would find someone to carry her bags or even get her phone out of her bag in the first place. “Actually, I think I felt really helpless and I really didn’t like it,” she admitted.

This experience encouraged participants to brainstorm a wide variety of ideas, ranging from magnetic bag handles to always-on voice recognition. “The interesting thing was how few of the ideas were really futuristic and technological, even though we had absolutely no constraints on our imagination at the time,” said another participant. “Having been through the empathy exercise we had a very different view of what was really important to our customer compared with what I probably would have imagined before.”

“It is uncomfortable to watch someone struggling, and very hard not to dive in and make suggestions,” agreed Chang, “but you must not be afraid of silence. Innovation is not just about a product but about the experience surrounding it, and for that you need to immerse yourself in the thoughts and feelings of the user.”

Watch the highlights of Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford here.