Companies are used to bringing in customers to participate in focus groups, usability laboratories, and market research surveys in order to help in the development of new products and services. And for improving products that customers know well, those tools are highly sophisticated. For example, knowledgeable customers are adept at identifying the specific scent of leather they expect in a luxury vehicle or at helping to tune the sound of a motorcycle engine to just the timbre that evokes feelings of power. But to go beyond improvements to the familiar, companies need to identify and meet needs that customers may not yet recognize. To accomplish that task, a set of techniques called empathic design can help. Rather than bring the customers to the company, empathic design calls for company representatives to watch customers using products and services in the context of their own environments. By doing so, managers can often identify unexpected uses for their products, just as the product manager of a cooking oil did when he observed a neighbor spraying the oil on the blades of a lawn mower to reduce grass buildup. They can also uncover problems that customers don't mention in surveys, as the president of Nissan Design did when he watched a couple struggling to remove the backseat of a competitor's minivan in order to transport a couch. The five-step process Dorothy Leonard and Jeffrey Rayport describe in detail is a relatively low-cost, low-risk way to identify customer needs, and it has the potential to redirect a company's existing technological capabilities toward entirely new businesses.
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