When I talk about empathy with respect to innovation and products, I’m talking about understanding the needs, hopes, desires, and aspirations of our users, customers, or other members of the business ecosystem. You want to get to know them deeply so you can build products that provide value to them. Empathy does not mean “doing what the customer wants.” It’s understanding why they say what they say.
You don’t need to understand each customer so deeply that you actually feel their personal pain. You don’t need to hug your customers. Rather, you hope to find a pattern among people who share a common need, and by understanding more about them—more about their needs and the impact addressing those will have on them—build a business around creating value for them.
Thanks in large part to the success of user experience professionals practicing human-centered design practices, “empathy” has become a corporate buzzword. This approach can only be good, and given public sentiment about corporations, we’re at a low risk of people being “too empathetic.” It’s interesting, however, that a little bit of empathy is sometimes better than a lot of empathy. You can, for example, over-design an experience—create such a “wow!” experience—that a user falls in love with it and wants it in that moment. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the user will buy it and use it, let alone love it once it’s built and released.