5 Ways to Design Products Customers Love

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Dorothy Leonard for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

Illustration Credit: Laura Lezza/Getty Images

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As a teenager, Mike Pfotenhauer loved to hike, but he hated how uncomfortable he felt carrying the backpacks then on the market. So, at age 16, he created his own, sewing all the pieces together himself. He went on to design and deliver customized outdoor equipment to clients who’d heard of him through the grapevine, and eventually he founded Osprey, a company that designs and manufactures all kinds of specialty bags and packs, with user-friendly features such as body-hugging contours, a top “lid” flap that converts into a spacious day pack, and a magnetic connector to secure the drinking tube from the built-in water reservoir.

This story exemplifies one type of empathic design, namely by a user-designer who combines deep knowledge of product use with the ability
to foresee new possibilities for it. Another well-documented way to achieve the same outcome is through ethnographic research — surveying and studying the behavior of potential or actual users — which design companies such as IDEO have used to great effect in projects as various as coasting bicycles to redesigning patient experience at Kaiser Permanente.

However, in a recent study of a number of architectural firms, I found that there are three additional ways, employed less often, of achieving empathic design.

One of these approaches is to temporarily adopt the role of a user. For example, a designer who wanted to understand patient and family experience in a hospital emergency room feigned an injury. One result of her acting debut was that she identified the need to redesign the way that the nurses conducted triage, that is, deciding who needed immediate attention and who could wait. Many teaching hospitals hire people to simulate patients in a similar way. Although the intention is more to educate future doctors than to change processes, such simulations can offer insights rich in suggestions for improvements, such as additional questions that should be a routine part of the doctors’ diagnostic inquiries.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Dorothy Leonard is the William J. Abernathy Professor of Business Administration Emerita at Harvard Business School and chief adviser of the consulting firm Leonard-Barton Group, which conducts workshops on this and other related topics. She is the author or coauthor of four Harvard Business Review Press books, including Critical Knowledge Transfer (2015).

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