Human After All

It’s easy to forget the importance of empathy in the face of new technology but, as Crowd DNA director Paul White explains, for cultural insights, it will always be the star of the show...

In the world of research and insight, it’s easy to be tempted by new methods, new delivery systems and new technologies. And while staying current is really important, delivering great results always comes back to the core skill of qualitative work: empathy. 

Nursing scholar, Theresa Wiseman, breaks empathy down into four key attributes:  

 1. Seeing the world the way others see it

2. Beginning from a non-judgemental space

3. Understanding another person’s feelings

4. Communicating your understanding of that person’s feelings back to them.

A perfect place to start, but we like to think there’s a fifth step to this process in cultural insight work, and that is: Communicating people’s feelings honestly and objectively to the client that commissioned the research.

So, if empathy is the cornerstone of our industry, why is it so easy to forget? Short answer: we unknowingly participate in systems that push it out of the conversation. Consider the chat you might have with a food stall trader compared to a targeted ad telling you the latest lunch deals. Both are marketing the same thing, but feel very different. We can’t change the current model of communication, but it has pushed us further away from IRL interaction. Short-termism then compounds this with quarterly targets and the need to make quick wins. So we all stay on the treadmill, often unable to take a long enough view to address larger human needs and do something truly empathetic.

This perspective is intensified by a tendency to focus on the newest, slickest methods – because, honestly, suggesting we’ll talk to some people and build recommendations on what they said (yet again) doesn’t sound as exciting as whatever the latest method might be. In our opinion, as long as your methodology is answering the problem you’re trying to solve, you’re on the right track. No need to get starstruck by the latest eye-tracking, VR gadgets or neuroimaging if it takes you away from the initial problem – a problem which is almost always a human one anyway.   

Next, if we know empathy is in short supply, how do we build it in? It starts by remembering our own humanity. At Crowd, we treat our colleagues and clients like humans and create space for people to bring themselves into their work and interactions with participants. By being present and using active listening, we are able to develop deeper connections and quickly bypass the researcher/respondent relationship. There is always insight to be found by truly listening, seeking to understand and not being scared to ask why. 

Don’t be afraid to advocate for human beings. All of us (even global heads of marketing and CEOs) happen to be people – and looking for commonalities between yourself and your customers is key. When we make business decisions in boardrooms (or Zoom calls) with little view of the outside world, the people at the end of the process can be easily forgotten. Instead, bring real people into the room in any way possible. This could be audience immersion work, insightful videos to build empathy or literally inviting your living, breathing customers into your process. 

We must stop reducing people to their ability to consume products. It’s a false shortcut that does no one any good. People are consumers some of the time – but they’re people all of the time. They have lives, worries, families, goals and dreams. It’s only by being more empathetic as professionals and companies that we are able to realise this, and harness the power of cultural insight to add true value to people’s lives.