Empathy Is the Key to Innovation

Selling UX

A unique perspective on service UX

A column by Baruch Sachs
June 3, 2019

Much has been written on the difference between innovation and invention. This makes some sense because it seems every company in the world, big or small, is striving for an innovative approach to solving existing problems. However, there is mass confusion about what innovation actually is—especially in the enterprise-software space.

It seems that every consultancy is frothing at the mouth to win the very lucrative opportunities to help organizations solve their digital-transformation problems. And they’re employing our experience-design playbook to do this.

How? In a word: empathy. Hearing and reading about all the latest approaches in technology and sales, empathy is the best new thing—the secret skill that can enable us to reach dizzying, new heights. Empathy could solve world hunger and make us all better people. But the fact that empathy does actually make us better people is lost on most. Empathy can help us innovate more quickly and, ultimately, sell more products, satisfy more customers, and generate greater revenues.

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How can we employ empathy? As someone who is in charge of driving innovation within my company and helping our clients to become more agile and scale innovation within their organizations, I see organizations using empathy in the following three ways:

  1. To really solve problems
  2. To innovate
  3. To manipulate

Using Empathy to Really Solve Problems

Empathy is a very powerful selling tool. These days, it’s all the rage among those in the profession of sales. But empathy has always been at the heart of User Experience. We are trained to use empathy in our work: “Walk in the user’s shoes.” “See the problem as if you were experiencing it yourself.” “Do some secret shopping yourself.” All of these mantras and behaviors are empathetic techniques that UX designers have honed by creating amazing, innovative products and services.

At its core, design thinking is about empathy. To really understand a problem we are trying to solve, we must have an empathetic view of the people who are experiencing that problem. When we ask the participants in any design-thinking endeavor to cast aside their judgments, their current understanding, their biases, and their reservations, we are essentially asking them to become the ultimate empathetic thinkers. After all, empathy is the first stage of the design-thinking process.

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. 

Vice President, Client Innovation, at Pegasystems

Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

Baruch SachsAt Pegasystems, Baruch helps global clients develop new ways of streamlining their operations, improving their customer experience, and creating real transformations—digital or otherwise. Previously, during his 12 years at Pegasystems, Baruch led their global User Experience team and served as the principal end-user advocate for the Pegasystems Services organization in their delivery of user-interface design and user experience to customers and partners. He has led and participated in successful efforts to improve user experience across various industries. Baruch earned his Bachelor of Arts in Professional and Technical Writing and Philosophy at the University of Hartford and his Master’s of Science in Human Factors in Information Design from Bentley University’s McCallum Graduate School of Business.  Read More

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