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Conducting virtual empathy fieldwork

Empathy fieldwork is the cornerstone of Design Thinking. Empathy fieldwork is also the cornerstone of the Customer Discovery phase.

We can learn about a person’s preferences by immersing ourselves in the person’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations. We can learn about the person’s behavioral traits to establish the trigger points of emotional needs. We can then innovate, and create products or services for that person.

Empathy fieldwork involves having a beginner’s mindset and getting outside the building to:

  • Learn the unknowns and unpredictable through spontaneous questions

  • Identify extreme users to learn their workarounds

  • Experience what users experience in the real world situation

  • Observe how users behave in the comfort or discomfort of their life context

  • Engage and interview users through unscheduled encounters

  • Pivot questions on the fly based on body language, facial expression, tone of voice, or mannerism of the users

  • Continually improve empathy interviews when moving from one user to another user

Unfortunately, given the new norms of working (as a result of the global pandemic), it will be indeed a challenge and risk for us to conduct face-to-face empathy interviews with users not known to us. Although we can conduct interviews by wearing our mask with adequate physical distancing, we may not be able to make the users comfortable to engage with us. The users may be concerns about the close conversation with us not known or familiar to them for a prolonged duration.

We, therefore, require to conduct empathy fieldwork virtually in the new norms. We need to create the virtual environment as though we are conducting empathy fieldwork in a physical environment. I faced this challenge when I held my first Design Thinking Online Course last year during the limited lockdown period. My course participants conducted several empathy interviews. The majority of them only managed to interview one interviewee.

While some of my course participants conducted scheduled virtual empathy interviews with friends, acquaintances, and business associates, the majority of them were able to conduct the face-to-face empathy fieldwork with:

  • A limited number of interviewees at their office lobby

  • A limited number of interviewees at their veterinary clinic

I learned that virtual empathy fieldwork was limited to having an online conversation only. We may observe the facial expression or hear the tone of voice of the interviewees during the conversation, we cannot see their full-body language. We are not able to experience what they are experiencing in their environment. We are not able to observe them in the context of their lives.

Furthermore, all virtual empathy interviews need to be pre-scheduled with people most likely known to us. Scheduling calls or online meetings with strangers will be difficult, and hence we require our friends or business associates to make the introduction in arranging such calls or online meetings.

My course participants met or virtual met with the same interviewees during the second round of empathy fieldwork in the testing phase. Such an approach is not ideal because learnings from testing will be limited. The testing phase should be conducted with another group of interviewees or users for another round of empathy interviews. Furthermore, Design Thinking requires us to run several iterations to refine our hypotheses and ideas.

In conclusion, conducting virtual empathy fieldwork has a lot of limitations. To learn Design Thinking online, we must recognize the limitations of virtual empathy fieldwork. We must continuously improve our empathy fieldwork by getting outside the building from moving online interviews to face-to-face empathy interviews. Such a bold step is necessary to iterate our new products or services as part of our Customer Development phase. However, it remains a challenge for now…

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