RSR Research: Empathy and Design Thinking
Through a special arrangement, what follows is an excerpt of an article from Retail Paradox, RSR Research’s weekly analysis on emerging issues facing retailers, presented here for discussion.
Hearing the word "empathy" in the context of application development and delivery at SAP’s Tech Ed event in Madrid left me befuddled. What does such a sociologically charged term have to do with technology implementation?
It all starts to come clear when you couple the notion of empathy with that of what SAP calls "Design Thinking."
In the world of Design Thinking, any human-facing technology must have three elements:
- It must have business viability (in other words, it has to answer a functional need);
- It must be technologically feasible (meaning you actually have to be able to make it work);
- It has to be desirable for the humans that will be using it.
Desirability doesn’t just mean they need it functionally, it means they might actually want to use it. I’ll tell you as an IT veteran of oh-so-many-years that this was the most often overlooked part of application development, and it was probably the single biggest source of implementation failure in my career: technological successes and cultural failures.
A graphic example of what can happen when we don’t think about a new technology’s desirability arrived when I returned home. I found out my favorite pharmacy associate, Mary, was planning to retire at the end of October. The reason: she was expected to learn a new computer application that was part of a new POS system and was afraid she was just too old to figure it out. I saw her fears were not unfounded.
While eliminating manual recordkeeping and also the hunting and pecking for prescriptions, the system was slow and, worse, confusing. Along with listing the drugs that are ready for pick-up, it also apparently lists those that are coming soon. The pharmacy clerk then has to ask the customer if he or she wants that one too, and then start the hunting and pecking process to find those scrips.
In other words, the system is functional, and more or less technologically feasible, but it just doesn’t take into account the way people work or how they want to work. Of course, it’s always easy to smugly say, "Well, people really don’t like change." And of course, they don’t. But that doesn’t let a technologist off the hook.
Now, maybe one day that new pharmacy system is going to work perfectly and we’ll all zip along. But in the meanwhile, lines are longer (as the head pharmacist observes every time I stop by), and the world moves more slowly. And I miss Mary, who really did know how to keep the pharmacy train running on time. I just keep asking myself, "Did the designers actually talk to old-timers and new-timers both?"
Why does the human element appear to be lacking in many retail technology implementations? In what ways can more “empathy” be built into the development and roll out processes? What extra steps could be taken to overcome any “resistance to change” in today’s increasingly tech-driven store?