Empathy: The One Thing That Robots Can’t Replace

Take a look at the images below - what do you think they have in common?

If you haven't already guessed it, these are some of the world's biggest product failures!

1. Nokia N-Gage (US$200)

Released in 2003, the Nokia N-Gage was a mix between a smartphone and a handheld games console. Its unusual curved shape was mocked by customers as a "taco". One of its poor feature designs included awkward location of the speaker and microphone’s on the side of the phone. In November 2005, Nokia admitted that the N-Gage failed, selling only one-third of the company's forecast (Toor, 2014).

2. Google Glass (US$1,500)

The Google Glass was launched in 2015 with much hype by the media as a revolutionary and highly futuristic product. Unfortunately, its unappealing aesthetic, lack of clear function and safety and health concerns (Doyle, 2016) led to its commercial failure. To consumers, obtaining the Google Glass offered no clear benefits.

3. Segway (US$5,999)

Despite significant funding and resources, the Segway failed to gain market acceptance. Consumers failed to see the need for the product since it didn't serve a purpose or solve a problem. There was a clear lack of user feedback or iteration in the design and there was no clear need or target market (Sloane, 2012).

4. Wenger 16999 Swiss Army Knife (US$9,000)

With over 87 implements, the Wenger 16999 Swiss Army Knife is able to perform over 141 functions, from apple coring to fish scaling. However, its ridiculous size and over-performing functions led customers thinking it was not a real product. Here is one of Amazon’s funny customer reviews: "I tried to file my nails, but in the process I accidentally fixed a small engine that was nearby. Which was nice".

Through the examples mentioned, it is apparent that businesses that launch new products often fail for several reasons: failure to understand consumer needs and wants, fixing a non-existent problem, targeting the wrong market or poor product execution compared to others. It appears that the lack of customer understanding stems from developing a product from a purely mechanical perspective; what is lacking here is empathy.

Empathy is what makes us human – the capacity for mutual understanding and the ability to put one self in somebody’s position. The manifestation of empathy in businesses and industries has led to the “Empathy Economy”. Similar to how the Sharing Economy was a by-product of the interconnected world through the Internet, the Empathy Economy arose through the loss of jobs caused by automation. It is a new economy that “values empathy and a world in which designers will play a central role in bringing that empathy back into the design of business” (TEDx Talks, 2005).

If carefully developed, empathy can give your company competitive advantage in many ways.

1. Relevant Product Design

As explained in IDEO’s Human-Centred Design Toolkit, empathy in design thinking is “a deep understanding of the problems and realities of the people you are designing for”. It is important to learn about your customers’ motivations, thoughts and needs before creating solutions. To develop empathy, you should always question every part of your product and process – Will my customers know what to do with the product? What makes it difficult for them to use? What features should I change to improve their experience?

2. Improved negotiation position

With empathy, you would be in a more advantageous position to negotiate with suppliers or services you engage with. By learning about their constraints, concerns and motives, you will be better abled to construct and adapt arguments to ensure both parties are satisfied with the outcome.

3. Effective conflict resolution

In the workplace, conflicts typically arise when colleagues have contrasting perspectives on an issue. By having empathy, you will be able to understand other people’s opinions faster, although that does not necessarily mean you have to agree with them. It is purely coming to the realisation that we all have different perspectives and that’s okay. If you do feel too emotional during a discussion, take a few minutes to remove yourself from the argument, regain composure, before starting a calm and rational conversation again.

So embrace empathy – there are so more much benefits than just being a nice person.


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