Empathy Is the Key to Innovation :: UXmatters

Using Empathy to Innovate

Empathy is the single most-overlooked ingredient of innovation. This is a huge problem because empathy is a critical ingredient of ensuring successful innovation. Every great innovation has come from a place of empathy. This makes great sense because innovation is so often borne out of someone’s frustration with the current way or state of things. For example, Steve Jobs was frustrated that he could not carry his library of music around in his pocket. He thought others might share his frustration. His answer? The iPod.

Ride-sharing services were borne out of people’s frustration with the overall taxi experience. All of the innovations that Uber, Lyft, and others have created through their technology and services have come from a place of empathy.

These are just two examples showing how empathy has driven tremendous innovations that have shaped the lives of millions of people. But why do innovation teams so often overlook the importance of empathy? I’m not totally sure, but the fact that many see empathy as a soft skill probably has a lot to do with it. Business schools, corporations, organizations of all kinds, and even the very framework of our society have been designed to build super-strong hard skills, but have placed too little emphasis on the soft skills that are necessary to grow and support a culture of innovation. Nevertheless, all innovation starts with someone’s having an idea about how something could be better. Empathy is the core of an innovation culture. Without it, we are unable to create anything truly new.

Using Empathy to Manipulate

Despite the many benefits of empathy, there is dark side to empathy that is not as well explored: the use of empathy to manipulate people. Anyone who is sufficiently skilled at empathy has a unique understanding of human emotions. Understanding emotions at such a deep level could allow some really terrible behaviors to creep in. For example, narcissism and its attributes feed on empathy.

Plenty of people—both individuals and organizations—buy and build things they do not need: They start up software projects that go nowhere. They build technology and data models to solve problems that never really existed—or are not the core problems they need to solve. At the root of all such problems is a level of manipulation masquerading as empathy.

As UX designers and innovators, we must be vigilant in guarding against this sort of manipulation. Instead, we should leverage empathy—and the skills of observation and listening that surround and complement it—to provide services and technology that people really need, not just those we want to sell.

For example, in my own role, I often help clients to understand the true end-to-end journey they want their customers to experience, even knowing that my company and its products are not the right fit for all steps of the journey. Helping a client to get an accurate picture of what they really need—even if, as a technology provider, we do not support every aspect of the journey—is a really powerful use of empathy. Ensuring that the client comes first requires diligence, ethics, and a true sense of empathy. It’s this kind of behavior that prevents manipulation through empathy.


Innovation is a broad topic—and one that it is both critical for people and organizations to understand and that is all too easy for them to misunderstand. By grounding innovation in several core tenets, we can successfully build innovation cultures and provide products and services that enrich people’s lives and help them achieve their goals, while at the same time, generating revenue for the companies that provide them. The core grounding tenet of innovation is empathy. Without it, we have nothing. 

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