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Healthcare IT: User Empathy Comes First

Health IT professionals need to fully understand the needs of clinicians and end-users in order to design software that truly works.

Todd Dunn

October 31, 2014

4 Min Read

In a TED talk, Benjamin Zander shared a story of two salesmen who went to Africa in the 1900s. They were sent there to determine if there was any opportunity for selling shoes, and they wrote telegrams back to Manchester on their findings. One wrote, "Situation hopeless. Stop. They don't wear shoes." Meanwhile, the other one wrote, "Glorious opportunity. They don't have any shoes yet." Clearly, mindset matters.

Too often I have heard IT professionals say, "Users don't know what they want." I couldn't disagree more. A more productive mindset may be to assume that few people are able to objectively look at what they are doing today and articulate that in sufficient detail to create a great software requirement.

As I wrote in my previous blog post, I have heard many technically inclined people say negative things about users. It doesn't work for me that there is such a gap today in how we approach software design versus how we should approach it for users. The real gap lies between those who approach design with deep customer empathy and those who do not.

I recently read that 68% of software fails and 67% of projects run over budget -- and we wonder why. I posit that it is because we don't view customers and their needs empathetically. Mindset matters.

And the mindset I want to discuss is "customer empathy." Merriam-Webster suggests that a mindset is a "mental attitude or inclination." In my view, empathy is about caring for people and having a deep desire to help them. What is the inclination of your organization? Customer empathy is an attitude and an action. To deliver great products that delight customers, we must be sensitive to the customers' feelings, thoughts, experiences, and environment. We need to observe these things because so much of this is implicitly understood versus explicitly described.

[Outrageous ideas welcome. Read Innovation Favors The Subversive Mind.]

Too often we see information systems organizations driving and delivering products and services without first understanding what to deliver. One great companion tool for enabling the customer empathy mindset is an empathy map. Questions you need to ask to create this map should include the following:

  • What do customers think and feel? What are their major concerns and worries?

  • What do they hear from their boss? Friends? Customers? Influencers?

  • What do customers see? Describe their environment and the choices they face each day.

  • What are their major pains? What are their emotional, functional, and social jobs to be done?

  • What do they want to gain from "hiring" a product or service?

Underlying an empathetic mindset is a deep curiosity to find out the answers to these and many more questions. It is also supported by a desire to delight users with your product or service. As mentioned in my previous blog, defining a product's or service's success in terms of a "Love Metric" is key to moving an organization toward becoming one that is known for its customer empathy mindset. Remember, the Love Metric measures the benefit the customer is expecting to get, not what you actually delivered -- nor whether you were on time, on budget, or on scope.

Writer and developer Steve McConnell said, "The most difficult part of requirements gathering is not the act of recording what the user wants; it is the exploratory development activity of helping users figure out what they want." This activity starts with the right mindset.

My friend Roy Rosin, chief innovation officer of Penn Medicine, put it this way: "If you don't know and understand your customers' hopes, goals, fears, and context, your chance of designing something that meets their needs is approximately zero."

As a leader, what tone are you setting (or not setting) in your organization? To what degree do you have a sleepy contentment with the status quo? Go on a customer exploration trip. Go see for yourself. And most of all, remember: Mindset matters. When we act with a customer empathy mindset, our teams and customers will applaud. Only if they love it have we succeeded.

The owners of electronic health records aren't necessarily the patients. How much control should they have? Get the new Who Owns Patient Data? issue of InformationWeek Healthcare today.

About the Author(s)

Todd Dunn

Director of Innovation, Intermountain Healthcare

Todd Dunn is the Director of Innovation for Intermountain Healthcare's I.S. Organization. Todd has worked for notable companies such as Cisco, Siemens, and GE. Todd is responsible for implementing a broad based innovation program specifically focusing on employee engagement in innovation. For many years Todd has pursued innovative approaches to solving complex problems. From his efforts at Cisco and other companies to his efforts today to bring to bear the fundamentals of innovation and deep employee engagement to Intermountain Todd has passionately pursued innovation and making a positive impact. Todd often spends his free time advising startups and was recently invited by Alex Osterwalder to be an exclusive pre-reader of Alex's upcoming book on business models: Value Proposition Design. Todd received his undergraduate degree in marketing from the University of Utah and his MBA from Michigan State University. Follow Todd on Twitter at @TToddDunn and Intermountain at @Intermountain.

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