Tag Archives: emotional intelligence

How using empathy can help build better systems and products

Rachel Drinkwater
Senior Business Analyst
University of Coventry

The Business Analysis Conference Europe 2018

Following on from my earlier posts about convergence, creativity and customer focus, today’s article looks at another of the themes which were prevalent throughout the Business Analysis Europe Conference 2018.
There was still a hint of summer in the air even as the first of the leaves were changing when I found myself in Westminster attending the conference courtesy of UCISA’s annual personal development bursary for those working in the education sector. Sitting writing this in my festive jumper just days before Christmas, September feels like a long time ago.
Given the time of year, in the words of Charles Dickens “a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; … when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely”, it is perhaps apt that today’s subject is empathy. It seemed that the concept of empathy was touched upon explicitly or implicitly in every session I attended at the conference.

Empathy in design thinking

Given that the first stage of design thinking is ‘Empathise’ (see below) and one of the other key areas of focus at the conference was customer experience, it is perhaps not a surprise that empathy was discussed frequently and in some depth in this context.

Design thinking is defined by Gartner as a “multidisciplinary process that builds solutions … in a technically feasible, commercially sustainable and emotionally meaningful way”. Activities undertaken, particularly in this first stage, seek to understand the thoughts, emotions and feelings of a customer or user on their journey with an organisation and its digital touchpoints.
In their Digital Customer Journeys workshop, Andrej Gustin (CREA Plus) & Igor Smirnov (NETICA) presented a useful approach and template for capturing these emotions at various touchpoints of the user’s journey to identify focus areas for improvement. At a very high level, the approach can be summarised as follows:
  1. Identify key touchpoints, then for each touchpoint:
  • Understand current process and user experience
  • Identify current customer emotion/feelings
  • Identify desired customer emotion/feelings and experience
  • Prioritise processes for improvement based on a gap analysis of current to desired customer state.
  1. For prioritised processes, brainstorm improvements.
I was particularly interested in this prioritisation of focus area by customer experience, rather than a traditional quantifiable benefit, which I felt demonstrated a real paradigm shift towards customer and user-centric systems design.

Empathy as a skill of the future

Empathy was also discussed from a social perspective, as we explored the human factor in a digital society, where robots, AI and interactions driven by algorithms are fast becoming a part of our everyday lives.
It is undeniable that many jobs formerly carried out by humans are now carried out partially, if not entirely, by machines. This has been increasingly evident in the manufacturing sector with progressively more elements of manufacturing production lines being automated since the 1970s. Footage of a car manufacturing plant in the early 20th century, compared to a modern-day plant illustrate the transition from a busy factory thriving with human workers, to a rather clinical environment where robotic arms move in an eerily human manner to select and assemble components.
However, this automation is not restricted to the manufacturing sector, which has traditionally been an early adopter of automation technologies. The service industry, a sector perhaps traditionally associated with human-delivered customer service, is also automating roles. When I visit a supermarket, I often choose to use the self-scan tills, interacting with (often quite frustrating) AI rather than a human cashier. Where eight members of staff would have processed transactions and exchanged pleasantries with customers ten years ago, one member of staff can supervise the same number of self-service tills, only intervening when the somewhat rudimentary AI (inevitably) reaches its limitations. When shopping online, I am as likely to consult a chatbot or self-service customer support tool as a member of the customer service team.
Thirty years ago such sophisticated technology belonged to the fantasy world of sci-fi movies. It was unthinkable that real-life technology would progress at such a rate to replace jobs with such a key human element to them. Yet with technological advances and the rate of change at an all-time-high the media, researchers and technological commenters are now speculating about the next tranche of job roles to be replaced by robots in the coming years and decades.
So, should we be concerned that we will one day be replaced by robots, rendered redundant by such seductive promises as “a jetliner pilot who never makes a mistake, never gets tired, never shows up to work with a hangover”*?
Meryl Streep once said “the greatest gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy”. Though significant research is being undertaken to develop synthetic empathy in AI, developing facial expression recognition technology and crunching millions of data points to build increasingly intelligent algorithms and so-called learning capabilities, for now it seems that true empathy remains a uniquely human ability. Shortly before the Business Analysis Europe Conference 2018, The World Economics Forum released their ‘Future of Jobs Report 2018’. In his Day 2 opening keynote speech, the IIBA’s Nick De Voil highlighted the top ten key skills trends for today and projections for 2022. It was notable how many ‘soft’ and ‘human’ workplace skills were listed as those which would endure despite predicted technological advancements. These key skills include emotional intelligence, initiative and social influencing, all of which require empathy. This perhaps implies an expectation that our technological advancements will continue to fail to satisfactorily emulate and replace such human abilities; those intrinsic traits of human nature of relating to others, reading non-verbal cues and making ‘human’ decisions.

Empathy in wellbeing

There was also emphasis on remembering that we and our co-workers are not suit-wearing robots. We are humans, with great potential for creativity, innovation, love and resourcefulness, but we are also subject to emotions, feelings, health problems and complicated personal lives.
Oxford Dictionaries succinctly define empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”. In his exciting Stakeholder Skills for Drug Busts session, National Grid’s Charlie Payne introduced the behaviour/attitude cycle (see below) when explaining the importance of being aware of the impact a person can have on others.

He explained that an individual’s attitude is reflected in their behaviour. This behaviour then influences the attitude of others, which in turn influences their behaviour and so on. Whilst this can be used positively, it all too often can have negative consequences on relationships and communication when the individuals involved are not practising Emotional Intelligence (EI).
With the recent societal drive to remove the stigma often traditionally associated with mental health, it was encouraging to find the subject addressed and discussed openly by a number of speakers at the conference.
Craig Rollason, also of National Grid, in his inspiring The BA Bucket List keynote advocated the benefits of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) in understanding colleagues and stakeholders and the reasons for their behaviour.
Rollason also presented a challenge/support matrix model which he explained can be used to analyse and grow awareness of an individual’s current work and career state. The model indicates that the best environment for career and personal development would be one where an individual is feeling challenged but supported. Rollason was however careful to note that some individuals may be experiencing high challenge and low support in their personal lives and subsequently may be in need of what Rollason coined ‘the duvet zone’ at work (low challenge and high support).
For me this was a rather unexpected example of empathy in such a professional setting, where sometimes there is an expectation of ‘leave your personal life at the door’ and ‘always be professional’. It was a welcome recognition that in reality, as humans, it is not always possible to switch emotions and personal distractions on and off at will, particularly in the modern world where technology has blurred the lines between work and personal time and space.

Empathy as an holistic practice

In summary, my top empathy takeaways were that whilst we can use empathy as a tool to better understand our customers and users to build better systems and products, we can also use it to understand our colleagues and understand their motivations, beliefs, attitudes and the root causes behind these. This enables us to build stronger working relationships, understand how to better interact and deal with our stakeholders and how to care for our colleagues when they need extra support.
We can also exercise empathy towards ourselves, valuing and appreciating our skills, finding our place in the world, respecting and drawing on our experiences and being proud of these. When practising emotional intelligence, self-awareness is also important as we consider how our behaviour and attitude influences that of others.
So, in the words of William S. Preston and Theodore Logan, this festive season and into the new year, “be excellent to each other” (and “party on dudes”)*. A very happy Christmas to you all and your families.

*Ten points if you get the movie references – and some classic 90s movie recommendations for the holidays!
Coming Soon…
In addition to convergence, creativity, customer focus and empathy, the following concepts arose time and again at Business Analysis Europe 2018, being discussed and explored in the majority of the sessions I attended:
  • Continuous Learning
  • Catastrophising
Watch this space in the New Year for the next installment!
This blog was originally published at: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/business-analysis-conference-europe-2018-empathy-rachel-drinkwater.
Interested in finding out more about a UCISA bursary, then visit UCISA Bursary Scheme.