Editor’s Note: In his new book, Change by Design, Tim Brown, CEO of the celebrated innovation and design firm IDEO, steps back from focusing on creating elegant objects and beautifying the world around us, to examining design thinking itself. The best designers, he says, match necessity to utility, constraint to possibility and need to demand. Most people are “ingenious at adapting to inconvenient situations that they are often not even aware that they are doing so,” Brown claims. “Traditional research techniques such as focus groups and surveys, which in most case simply ask people what they want, rarely yield important insights…Henry Ford understood this when he remarked, ‘If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.’” This is an excerpt from the chapter where Brown talks about three mutually reinforcing elements of any successful design program – insight, observation and empathy. We asked to present the section on empathy.
It’s possible to spend days, weeks, or months conducting [ethnographic and behavorial] research, but at the end of it all we will have little more than stacks of field notes, videotapes, and photographs unless we can connect with the people we are observing at a fundamental level. We call this “empathy,” and it is perhaps the most important distinction between academic thinking and design thinking. We are not trying to generate new knowledge, test a theory, or validate a scientific hypothesis—that’s the work of our university colleagues and an indispensable part of our shared intellectual landscape. The mission of design thinking is to translate observations into insights and insights into products and services that will improve lives.