What does empathy have to do with innovation?

Empathy and Innovation
What does empathy have to do with innovation?

By Gaia Grant and Andrew Grant

Originally published in a similar format as an article online by Human Resources Media with the title ‘What does empathy have to do with innovation?’.

The surprising human-cented connection that counts

Who would have thought that emotions would contribute to better innovation and business success? Yet that is exactly what researchers have found: the best ideas and solutions come from better emotional connections. This article explores the importance of empathy in the innovation process and the potential powerful results.

Empathy is now pretty much universally recognized as an integral part of the innovation process and a foundation for creative development.

Bestselling author on the creativity in business Dan Pink believes empathy ‘makes the world a better place’ because it is all about ‘standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes’.

A prerequisite for solving wicked problems

The design thinking approach to innovation, as popularised by Stanford school and the global design firm IDEO, has captured and developed the concept of empathy, to make it inseparable from the process. Design thinking is a powerful ideation and design process widely used by businesses today to come up with new products and services. Leading innovative companies such as Apple and Google use design thinking on a day-to-day basis.

The process focuses on looking at a challenge that may appear to have no clear solution (which is often known as a ‘wicked’ problem), identifying the underlying problem at the heart of the issue, then trying to understand the different perspectives and needs related to the issue.

The designer will initially identify the desires and needs of the users and, through an iterative process of prototyping, develop products, systems and services that best meet the user’s needs.

The outside-in approach

CEO and IDEO President Tim Brown describes design thinking as ‘a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success’.

Brown also nominates an outward-looking perspective and empathy as prerequisites for innovation: ‘A sense of inquiry, of curiosity, is essential for innovation, and the quickest way for removing curiosity in my opinion is to have organizations that are too inward-facing,’ he suggests. ‘A sense of empathy for the world and for the people whose problems they might be trying to solve—that’s essential.’

Empathy provides the ‘human-centered’ focus in design thinking. It is the link between the person designing the new product or solution and the end user.

By starting with empathy, the designer can understand and relate to the issues the user faces and therefore create designs that best meet their needs.

Solving the shopping trolley challenge

The importance of empathy and understanding the user’s perspective when designing new products and services has been embraced by a wide range of companies. As an example of how this can work in practice, let’s consider the challenge of shopping trolleys.

Have you ever noticed how difficult these trolleys can be to negotiate around the supermarket aisles, how items become wedged or buried deep in the basket, and how frustratingly long it can take to get through the checkout process?

IDEO was set the challenge of designing a new shopping cart (it’s worth watching the ABC Nightline video that shows them going through the process4). To deal with shoppers’ frustration at having to wrestle a full trolley up and down the aisles, a number of years ago IDEO designers came up with ideas for carts that are more like skeletons providing a frame for baskets to be slotted in and stacked to allow for collecting and searching for a few items at a time.

Hooks were added around the edges of the skeletal structure on which shoppers could hang plastic bags, and they then designed a cart concept with a scanner on the handle, so shoppers could do the scanning as they place the items in the basket rather than having to go through the whole process at the checkout at the end.

IDEO have continued applying these principles in a range of contexts over the years (for example, LA County voting, Ford Pill Pack, and so on).

How to connect to create

Empathy can be a form of positive action that ensures innovations make a difference in people’s lives. Here is how to start emotionally connecting better for more creative and effective outcomes:

  • Identify the end user: Consider who the end user will be – you might like to develop personas and / or to connect with actual potential users.
  • Put yourself in the end user’s shoes, understand their perspectives: Use ethnographic research tools to help you to identify individual challenges and concerns of your end users. Observations, interviews, focus groups and empathy maps (recording how the end user thinks, feels and acts) can all help to create a vivid picture of who the end user is and what they really need.
  • Involve the end user in the innovation process: Invite the end user to co-create with you – to share in the brainstorming process, to provide ideas and refinements for prototypes, to test and provide feedback on potential solutions.

An emotional connection through empathy can mean all the difference between the invention of a basic product and a powerful people-focused advance.

By connecting the whole innovation process more closely with the people the innovation is designed to help, it can be possible to solve ‘wicked’ and challenging problems and come up with outstanding results.


  1. Pink, D. (2005). A whole new mind: Moving from the information age to the conceptual age. New York, NY: Riverhead Books
  2. ABC Nightline (2009). IDEO Shopping Cart. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M66ZU2PCIcM
  3. Brown, T. (2013). How do you build a culture of innovation? Yale Insights. Retrieved from http://insights.som.yale.edu/insights/how-do-you-build-culture-innovation


Andrew Grant and Gaia Grant Gaia Grant and Andrew Grant are the authors of The Innovation Race: How to change a culture to change the game (Wiley 2016) along with a number of other international bestselling books and resources. As the Directors of Tirian International Consultancy Gaia and Andrew help to develop innovation cultures for a range of international organisations from Fortune 500 companies through to NFPs. The Grants are top-ranking keynote speakers, and Gaia is a doctoral researcher and lecturer at the University of Sydney Business School. For more information see https://the-innovation-race.com.

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