The Power of Empathy in Product Development

Kelly Herd, assistant professor of marketing, UConn School of Business. (Nathan Oldham/UConn Photo)
Kelly Herd, assistant professor of marketing, UConn School of Business, says "Subtle things, such as imagining how someone else would feel, can have a huge impact on creativity in general." (Nathan Oldham/UConn Photo)

What kind of potato chip would you create, and what would you name it, if you wanted to sell the product exclusively to pregnant women?

This was the task that marketing professors Kelly Herd (University of Connecticut) and Ravi Mehta (University of Illinois) presented to more than 200 adults, in a study of how emotion impacts creativity. Half of the group was simply given the assignment in an objective way. The other participants were told to take a few minutes, before beginning the task, to envision how the customer would feel while eating the snack.

The amateur ‘product designers’ came up with vastly different potato chip ideas and descriptions, but the most creative (as judged by a panel of mothers-to-be) were: Pickles-and-Ice Cream chips; Sushi chips; and ‘Margarita-for-Mom’ chips. The most creative ideas came from the group that had thought about how the consumer would feel before starting the task.

Consideration of an end-user’s feelings is a potent tool for developing innovative new products and solving problems that exist in the marketplace. — Kelly Herd

“I think it is fascinating to see that eliciting empathy has inherent value in maximizing creativity,” Herd says. “This is one of those areas of psychology that hasn’t been clearly disentangled yet for marketers: how does explicitly thinking of others’ feelings affect those who are creating new work?”

“We’ve shown that empathy can change the way in which you think,” she says. “We’ve looked at it in a somewhat narrow context of product design, but it appears that subtle things, such as imagining how someone else would feel, can have a huge impact on creativity in general.”

Separate Experiments Yield Consistent Results

The research, titled, “Head vs. Heart: the Effect of Objective versus Feelings-Based Mental Imagery on New Product Creativity,” will appear in the June issue of the Journal of Consumer Research. Herd and Mehta conducted five separate experiments, including asking participants to design a child’s toy, select ingredients for a new kids’ cereal, and redesign a grocery cart for the elderly. Each time, the group that produced the most original products was the one instructed to imagine the target consumers’ feelings before beginning the task.

The product judges were experts in the subject area – for instance, the toys were judged by adults who work with children in the relevant age group. None of the judges were aware of the differences in the team assignments, and were asked simply to use their knowledge to identify which designs were the most creative.

The findings reconcile previous studies that had produced inconclusive arguments on imagery and outcome.

Emotional Connection Leads to Cognitive Flexibility

The researchers believe the initial focus on others’ feelings creates ‘cognitive flexibility’ – the ability to simultaneously consider issues from diverse perspectives. The ability to “shift avenues of thought” while perceiving and processing information is a benefit to creativity.

But it was important to determine that the proposals were not only creative, but feasible, Herd says. “We wanted to make sure the proposals weren’t outlandish and that empathy didn’t negatively impact practicality.”

The recommendation of eliciting an emotion before beginning a creative project offers product developers an inexpensive and simple way to boost their generation of ideas, she says.

Companies are Tapping Consumer Brainstormers

An interesting trend in marketing now is for large companies to develop new ideas for products and services from their customers’ suggestions, says Herd. LEGO, Starbucks, Frito-Lay Co., and even the U.S. Army all offer opportunities for consumers to make recommendations for their corporate product line. This year alone, more than half of consumer goods manufacturers say they will get 75% of their innovation and research and development capabilities from crowdsourcing.

Starbucks has fielded more than 150,000 customer ideas since it began implementing its crowdsourcing program in 2008. Their input has led to the creation of Frappuccino Happy Hour, mobile payment drive-throughs, free birthday treats, and the creation of cake pops.

In an ultra-competitive marketplace, few companies will survive for long without innovation and new products, Herd says. In fact, a 2016 study published in Business News Daily found that 82% of company executives interviewed believe there is a strong connection between creativity and business results.

Until now, mental imagery and other strategies impacting creativity haven’t been well researched, she notes. The researchers were able to present new evidence demonstrating the effects of mental imagery on creativity, document the importance of different types of mental imagery, and identify cognitive flexibility as the underlying process.

“We were trying to brainstorm context where people could design for others,” says Herd. “Our participants spent a lot of time thinking these projects through, in some cases much more time than they needed to. One of the things we love about testing creativity is that it is engaging, and people say it is a fun task. Through these simple experiments, we’ve shown that consideration of an end-user’s feelings is a potent tool for developing innovative new products and solving problems that exist in the marketplace.”