If you are looking to innovate, it may be time to take stock. And I don’t mean in your company’s valuation. There is something deeper worth evaluating, something personal. Take stock in your own biases, prejudices, expectations, desires, loves, hates, triggers, interests, and thought patterns. Before we start looking around and evaluating the external resources we will ultimately need for innovation, we must first take a look inward and assess our internal roadblocks. Too often these roadblocks prevent the success of otherwise sound innovation processes.
Put plainly, innovation is first an inside job, especially if you are utilizing design thinking processes in your innovation work. The first step in that process is empathy, you must analyze your own baggage in order to effectively and honestly empathize with the humans you are interested in.
Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom. - Aristotle
If you want to better understand your humans (formerly known as your users and consumers - see why here), you first have to know thyself. Uncover where your thoughts and expectations are inhibiting your ability to hear and understand Truth. When we engage in qualitative and quantitative research, we have to be aware of when pieces of us are seeping into our efforts, when we are no longer objective, when we are only seeing the things we want to see.
While it is worthwhile to evaluate the research process and explore participant influencers like leading questions, interviewer posturing, sampling design and representativeness, as well as environmental influence (literally, how is the physical space impacting participants), what I am referring to here is happening in your head, and it colors the world as you know it. The cognitive biases shaping your perception and understanding are happening reflexively and instinctively. These are mental shortcuts lessening the load on your cognitive capacity and making you operate more efficiently; however, they need to be acknowledged and counteracted if you are to genuinely understand humans.
So if you are in a place to look inward, here are a few common biases worth noting as you set out to empathize with humans:
Confirmation bias (or confirmatory bias, myside bias): the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one's preexisting beliefs or hypotheses. This one is a biggie. It is essentially saying we look for and find what we intend and expect to find.
Counteract it: Write a list of your expectations and what you think people may say, think and feel. Get it all out in front of you. If we are being honest, this should be your audience personas. Then, review your discussion guides for your research. Are you leading them to the answers you want or are you opening up the lines of communication to hear their Truth?
Availability heuristic: a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to mind when assessing and evaluating a specific topic, idea, concept, method or decision. It relies on the first things that come to mind, rather than considering the unknown.
Counteract it: Focus on being open-minded and engage in active listening with your participants. Be open to the unknown. Avoid body language and expressions that appear to judge answers or belittles them. Avoid "helping" your participants answer you questions by providing your examples. This is leading them down your path, not you walking down theirs.
Bias blind spot: occurs when a person recognizes the impact of biases (like the ones mentioned here) on the judgment of others, while failing to see the impact of these same biases or others on their own judgment.
Counteract it: I wish there was some cool mental trick here to combat this one, but simply recognize that you too are at the mercy of biases, especially if they go unchecked. Remember that and work to minimize their impact. Don't be afraid to ask "why?" to your participants and to yourself.
Attribution bias: (or attributional bias) the systematic errors made when people evaluate or try to determine the reasons for other people’s behaviors. It happens when we attribute a person’s behavior to some perceived internal characteristic (like, they are stupid, arrogant, selfish, etc.), rather than attribute it to some environmental cue or other external influence. This one may be better understood with an example. We are driving and see a driver swerve into another lane. We may think this person is just reckless or not paying attention, rather than blame it on the shredded tire or road debris that was in their lane (that we did not see). Here, we attributed the behavior to some intrinsic element of their personality or character, rather than to an external force or influence.
Counteract it: Ask people. Ask them about their experience, what they were thinking and feeling when they were doing the thing you are interested in. Go as deep into their psyche as you feel is appropriate and they are willing to allow. Stop assuming and ask, “What was going on?” I will say it again, stop assuming.
Overconfidence effect: occurs when a person's subjective confidence in his or her judgements is reliably greater than the objective accuracy of those judgements, especially when their confidence is relatively high.
Counteract it: Do good, reliable, representative research. Or hire someone who will. Validate your thoughts and judgments with rigorous and systematic methods that can help you get accurate feedback from your humans. Your methods will impact your confidence level. The better the methods, then the higher your ability to be confident in the findings.
This is a list of just a few biases; however, even these may provide you some evidence that your struggles with empathy might be you and your individual biases. This introduction is simply a primer and more reading on Wikipedia could help you better understand them (where some of these descriptions came from).
If you are intrigued and a bit more curious, take a look at this larger bias codex, because the five touched on here are simply the tip of 175+ cognitive biases iceberg! Our brains are designed to be efficient and sometimes that involves mental shortcuts. Shortcuts can be helpful or harmful, if we are not cognizant of them.
Awareness is the first step, and you have taken it just by reading this. Empathizing with others takes knowing thyself, and now you know yourself a little better.