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Wired to Care February 18, 2011

Posted by Alison Meier in Leading Strategy Change, Wired to Care.

Wired to Care by Dev Patnaik and Peter Mortensen

Review by Alison Meier, School of Information, master’s class of 2011

Wired to Care is written by Dev Patnaik and Peter Mortensen from Jump Associates, a strategy consulting company based out of San Francisco and New York. Wired to Care’s basic premise is that businesses are successful when they empathize with their customers.

The authors remind us that companies are made up of people who create products and services for the benefit of other people. As people, our brains are made to understand other people: we have “mirror neurons” that help us understand how others think and feel when we interact with them (we are “wired to care,” as the authors put it).

For companies, understanding how customers think and feel have enormous business advantages, from being able to anticipate market shifts to building customer loyalty to helping employees believe in their work. Yet most companies fail to interact with the customers on a regular basis, relying instead on market research reports. Wired to Care argues that research reports aren’t enough: companies need regular, sustained interaction with customers in order to meet their needs.

Wired to Care illustrates its points through dozens of anecdotes of companies and individuals that embrace (or fail to) a business model of empathy. Some companies that did a good job of understanding their customers were:

  • Harley-Davidson, which requires employees to spend a certain amount of time with motorcycle riders and often hires riders as employees;
  • Nike, whose campus is covered with running trails and athletic facilities, and product designers spend time observing kids college campuses to grasp fashion trends;
  • and Microsoft’s Xbox team, made up of hardcore gamers designing for other hardcore gamers.

In contrast, some companies that failed to understand their customers were:

  • Maxwell House, which led the coffee industry to introduce poor quality beans to coffee blends from the 1950s to the 1990s. Market tests showed that current coffee drinkers didn’t notice the incremental changes, but eventually new generations of coffee drinkers didn’t want to start drinking coffee;
  • and Microsoft’s Zune team, which was the same team that built the highly successful Xbox, but this time they couldn’t figure out who their customer was.

The Empath-O-Meter on their website lets readers votes on how well other companies manage to understand their customers, which helps frame the book’s argument in more real-world examples.

The authors of this book do a good job of illustrating empathy success stories. They demonstrate that some companies have experienced significant growth once they started understanding their customers. Moreover, it makes me want to work for a company that is good at empathy.

The last company that I worked for would likely fall on the “low empathy” side of the Empath-O-Meter. I worked for a major textbook publisher. I never had any contact with the students who would actually use the products we were making, nor did anyone I worked with. We would occasionally hear how a book was selling, but in general, we didn’t know anything about a book after it printed. This made if difficult to think about how our work affected the end users. When a book was running behind schedule or was sloppily prepared, it was easy to think that the only thing this affected was the lead editor’s bonus, when in reality it meant that classes were waiting for the books they had ordered or students were struggling to use texts with errors. Although we knew this in theory, having a chance to see this in person would have pushed us to work faster and better.

Many companies, particularly those that do “design,” are beginning to understand the value of user experience research. In general this means hiring a team or individual specifically to do user experience research, doing ethnographies, contextual interviews, observations, and interviews with the end-users. Wired to Care doesn’t comment specifically on user experience research; instead, it advocates that every member of the company be involved with its end customers. For many companies, this would require a major shift in its daily practices, hiring practices, and maybe even geographical location.

One criticism is that the book does not go into specifics about how to actually practice empathy, beyond hiring Jump to understand your customers for you (though this seems to negate the premise that the entire company needs to be involved in this process). The examples do not provide a roadmap as to how to start this process because they are so varied. In some cases they suggest that hiring your customers is a good place to start, but as the product designer for Nike illustrated, knowing what he wanted a good shoe for running is not enough; he also needed to know what young people found fashionable. Granted, the roadmap would likely be different for every company. However, the book leaves me convinced that empathy is important but no good way to start practicing it.