Innovation Always Starts With Empathy; Look at Zipcar and Even Apple

Why empathy is a creative company’s most powerful tool.

[This post is a rebuttal to one previously written by Jens Martin Skibsted and Rasmus Bech Hansen, “User-Led Innovation Can’t Create Breakthroughs; Just Ask Apple and Ikea.” ? Ed.]


User research has been a critical part of Ziba’s design process for more than 25 years, and we’re not alone. Long before the term User Centered Design (UCD) was coined in the 1980s, the world’s smartest companies have relied on insights gained from their customers to innovate.

Recently, this proven practice has come under attack. In keynote talks at creative conferences and feature articles in business magazines, we’re told that UCD is dead–that the key to great innovation is ignoring what users want, and instead boldly showing them the way. These messages are seductive. It’s encouraging to tell ourselves that we, the innovators, know best, and Henry Ford was right to dismiss customers as folks who would simply ask for “a faster horse.”

It’s nice to tell ourselves that we, the innovators, know best.

There’s a kernel of truth in this criticism, but experience and common sense tell us it is oversimplified and misleading. Even a brief survey of modern business makes it clear that the brash company that forges ahead, heedless of customer needs, is more likely to become irrelevant than revolutionize an industry (just think of American auto makers in the 1980s). Truly innovative companies pay constant attention to their customers. Deeply. Obsessively.

The world is full of innovations that came from users–not by asking them what they want, but by becoming them. The world’s great design-driven companies don’t have to ask customers what they want, because they already know.

Be the Target Market
Consider Zipcar. The world’s leading car-sharing service got its start 11 years ago in a Cambridge, MA cafe, when Antje Danielson described a concept she had seen in Berlin to fellow businesswoman Robin Chase. Chase recognized the opportunity immediately, because she was its target user. In 2003, she explained to the New York Times that there was “a huge demand for the service if it was positioned correctly–I knew because I was the market.”

The world is full of innovations that came from users.

It should be no surprise that Zipcar saw incredible growth over the next decade, and now enjoys the fervent support of more than 400,000 users. When the founder understands the needs of the target market inherently, they see potential innovations that are hidden to the less attuned. Even today, under a new CEO, Zipcar strives to keep its offices filled with staff who are also users and lists “be zipsters” as a key trait on the company’s mission page.


Many of the world’s most innovative companies benefit from this kind of institutional empathy. Steve Jobs isn’t just a great businessman, he’s also the prototypical Apple user, and he’s assembled a team of smart, like-minded folks to bring his vision to life. It’s no wonder Apple doesn’t ask users what they want. They are the users.

If You Don’t Have Empathy, Create It
Snowboarding giant Burton is able to innovate without focus groups because it couldn’t possibly do otherwise. When every person on your team is steeped in sports and the outdoors, solving design problems becomes very personal. One of Ziba’s creative directors worked for several years as a designer at Burton. He recalls how one day a senior designer walked in with a photo of a snowboarder’s calf, covered in bruises from a long day on the slopes. “Fix this!” he demanded, and both of them immediately knew that this was a problem worth solving. They began to look for a solution. Empathy with the user is a powerful tool for innovation. It gives you insight into the problem, but even more important, it makes you care about the outcome.

Of course, not every company has this luxury. As markets grow and adapt, many businesses must focus their approach on the right market segment, who may have little in common with those in charge. In other cases, target users evolve and shift beneath the company. In both situations, user research is crucial.

Good user research is not a questionnaire that asks customers what they want. It’s a tool for developing empathy. When Ziba investigates a specific user as part of a design project, the end result isn’t a set of new products, it’s an internal understanding of what that user is like: The challenges she faces each day, the things that excite and concern her, and her motivations and values. If you don’t come out of a research effort feeling like a different person, you’re doing it wrong.

Good Research Puts You in Your User’s Shoes
The most innovative companies build this kind of empathy into their daily business. They know exactly who their customers are, they spend time talking with them, and they think long and hard about what they say. They walk the aisles of their own stores, as Costco CEO Jim Sinegal does every week, to feel what their customers feel.

If research doesn’t make you feel like a different person, you’re doing it wrong.

Without that level of empathy, Costco’s most beloved innovations wouldn’t exist. Their famous “14% rule” that limits the markup on every item they sell may not make immediate sense from a shareholder’s perspective. But from the point of view of the shopper on the floor, it stands for value, transparency, and fairness–traits that make Costco shoppers some of North America’s most loyal customers.


Internalizing the values of your users makes innovation easier, but getting there is hard. It is not the result of traditional market research, with its focus groups and quantitative studies. Empathy building demands that you live the life of your users and hear what they are saying, even if their interests and values are different from yours. Research efforts at Ziba have included playing basketball with college students in China, asking DJs in Berlin to show us their record collections, and doing laundry with Mumbai housewives. In each case, the goal is not to ask them what we should design, but to gain insight, absorb it, and translate it into a language our clients understand. Without that insight, any attempt at innovation is no better than a wild guess.

Intuition is Not Enough
It’s tempting to look at a successful innovator and see a lone wolf, relying on intuition and instinct to create breakthroughs. But in the real world, the companies that get innovation right, again and again, are the ones that feel what their customers feel. That is true user-centered innovation, and it’s available to anyone who makes empathy a top priority.

[Top image by Kevin Dooley]


About the author

Born in Tehran, Iran in 1956, Sohrab Vossoughi moved to the United States in 1971. After studying mechanical engineering for three years, he switched to study industrial design