Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Tools for Innovation IV: Try a little empathy

Predicting the future requires being a part of the present.

Total Recall Movie PosterEvery once in a while, it is fun to go back and watch an old movie that aims to tell the future. Last week, I decided to introduce my teenagers to Arnold Schwartzenegger's profession before he became governor of California. So, we got Total Recall on video. The movie, based on a science fiction story by Philip K. Dick, came out in 1990.

When you watch an older science fiction movie, some of the details are just slightly off. For example, there are television screens on a subway car. Those screens are all CRTs rather than flat-panel screens. There are computerized information kiosks in a public square (a pretty good prediction), but they require keyboards to input information rather than having touch screens.

A glaring omission, though, is that nobody is carrying cell phones. These days, of course, you can't go anywhere without seeing people on cell phones talking and texting. But in this movie, crowds on the street walked along without anyone on the phone.

Of course, in 1990, nobody walked around with a cell phone. So, there was no reason for the production staff of the movie to envision a world where everyone was attached to portable modes of communication at all times.

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This is, of course, one of the central limitations of being really innovative. Innovation requires being able to envision a future that is actually quite different from the one that we live in. Where some technology or product or service allows us to do things on a routine basis that are simply not part of daily life at the moment.

How can you do that?

One thing that is worth trying is to really put yourself into a situation and then ask yourself what would make the entire experience easier, better, or more fulfilling. The idea that an innovator should understand the experience from the perspective of a user is called empathic design.

It might seem obvious that the perspective of product users should be part of the process of creative design, but in fact it is common for design teams to treat innovation abstractly.

There are a number of reasons why empathic design can be useful.

Engaging in a situation makes the limitations of the current process apparent. For example, there is nothing like trying to learn to program an alarm clock for making it clear to a designer how difficult it is to set an alarm properly.

Alarm ClockEnvisioning the future requires finding a way to ask the right kind of question. Often, innovation starts with a problem to be solved. For example, a group might get together and set about to design a better alarm clock. Framed this way, the group might focus on elements of alarm clocks (the clock face or the alarm) and try to improve them. By engaging in the process of using an alarm clock, though, other issues may arise. For example, users who routinely shut off the alarm and go back to sleep may think about alarm clocks that cannot be easily shut off. Users who have trouble setting alarm clocks may focus on how to improve the interface to allow the clock to be set accurately and easily.

But this embodied experience with a process may also allow a future more distant from our own to be envisioned. Concepts are not purely abstract. They are deeply rooted in the way we see and act on the world. By actually engaging in a situation or process, the designer is able to engage aspects of their concepts that remain dormant when innovation is treated as an abstract exercise.

As a consequence of thinking about the experience of sleeping and waking up, the designer can begin to ask questions about what causes people to wake up. Perhaps components of sunlight could be used to help wake people up. Perhaps beds could be designed so that after it is time to wake up, the bed is no longer a comfortable place to lie down. That is, by thinking about how your body reacts to situations, you may be able to envision a world that does not work exactly the way our world works right now.

In the end, a truly creative innovation is one that turns the world we know now into the world we will know later. In order to get from here to there, we have to engage our minds and bodies in our current world to help us recognize its limitations and opportunities.

 

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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