Empathy empowers product development

June 9, 2019

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Empathy empowers product development

What kind of potato chip would you create, and what would you name it, if you wanted to sell the product exclusively to pregnant women?

This was the task that a team of marketing professors presented to more than 200 adults in a study of how emotion impacts creativity. Half of the group was simply given the assignment in an objective way. The other participants were told to take a few minutes before beginning the task, to envision how the customer would feel while eating the snack.

The amateur ‘product designers’ came up with vastly different potato chip ideas and descriptions, but the most creative (as judged by a panel of mothers-to-be) were - Pickles-and-Ice Cream chips; Sushi chips; and ‘Margarita-for-Mom’ chips. The most creative ideas came from the group that had thought about how the consumer would feel before starting the task.

What the researchers say: “I think it is fascinating to see that eliciting empathyhas inherent value in maximizing creativity,” said the lead author. “This is one of those areas of psychology that hasn’t been clearly disentangled yet for marketers: how does explicitly thinking of others’ feelings affect those who are creating new work?

We’ve shown that empathy can change the way in which you think,” she said. “We’ve looked at it in a somewhat narrow context of product design, but it appears that subtle things, such as imagining how someone else would feel, can have a huge impact on creativity in general.”

The research is published in the Journal of Consumer Research. The researchers conducted five separate experiments, including asking participants to design a child’s toy, select ingredients for a new kids’ cereal, and redesign a grocery cart for the elderly. Each time, the group that produced the most original products was the one instructed to imagine the target consumers’ feelings before beginning the task.

The product judges were experts in the subject area - for instance, the toys were judged by adults who work with children in the relevant age group. None of the judges were aware of the differences in the team assignments and were asked simply to use their knowledge to identify which designs were the most creative.

The findings reconcile previous studies that had produced inconclusive arguments on imagery and outcome.

The researchers believe the initial focus on others’ feelings creates “cognitive flexibility”—the ability to simultaneously consider issues from diverse perspectives. The ability to “shift avenues of thought” while perceiving and processing information is a benefit to creativity.

But it was important to determine that the proposals were not only creative, butfeasible, the researchers say. “We wanted to make sure the proposals weren’t outlandish, and that empathy didn’t negatively impact practicality.”

The recommendation of eliciting an emotion before beginning a creative project offers product developers an inexpensive and simple way to boost their generation of ideas, they concluded.

So, what? An interesting trend in marketing now is for large companies to develop new ideas for products and services from their customers’ suggestions. LEGO, Starbucks, and Frito-Lay Co., all offer opportunities for consumers to make recommendations for their corporate product line. This year alone, more than half of consumer goods manufacturers say they will get 75% of their innovation and research and development capabilities from crowdsourcing.

Starbucks has fielded more than 150,000 customer ideas since it began implementing its crowdsourcing program in 2008. Their input has led to the creation of Frappuccino Happy Hour, mobile payment drive-throughs, free birthday treats, and the creation of cake pops.

In an ultra-competitive marketplace, few companies will survive for long without innovation and new products. In fact, a 2016 study published in Business News Daily found that 82% of company executives interviewed believe there is a strong connection between creativity and business results.

Until now, mental imagery and other strategies impacting creativity haven’t been well researched. These researchers were able to present new evidence demonstrating the effects of mental imagery on creativity, document the importance of different types of mental imagery, and identify cognitive flexibility as the underlying process.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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