Compassionate Innovation. Why Do We Need It?

human centred, human centered, human, design, innovation

“I admired the works of artists, but to my mind, they were only shadows and semblances. The inventor, I thought, gives to the world creations which are palpable, which live and work” ~ Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla, perhaps the greatest technological innovator of modern times, admired the compassionate purpose of the artist. Art, in its exposing and illuminating of the human condition as seen through the lens of intuition and feeling, the artist’s mind, shows us our inner truth, reveals what it means to be human. Science also seeks the truth but it is a different kind of truth that emerges through the lens of the telescope, the magnifying glass, the mathematical formula. It reveals nothing of the quality of our experience, speaking only to the quantifiable phenomena of our world. Seen as such the parallel lines of art and science seem destined never to meet, to forever drive towards the goal of truth but worlds apart in their focus and methodology.

The visionary Tesla saw it differently. He saw what others didn’t see. He saw that intuition and reason, compassion and calculation do converge, that they meet in the mind of the inventor, the innovator, for it is in the best technology that we find the integration of the heart and the mind. Without reason the true innovator would have no means to express his vision and without compassion no purpose for it. The greatest innovators are often the greatest humanitarians. It is the intuitive grasp of human nature and the desire to serve the human need that inspires them to apply reason to solve our problems, to use science to ease our suffering and enrich our lives.

And yet most people, even most inventors, designers and creators, don’t think of technology in this way, especially in the area of commercial enterprise where the primary purpose technology and innovation seem to serve is financial profit. We often default to an approach to design and innovation led by reason and analysis of past experience. As Henry Ford said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. The horse was just the best solution we had hitherto found to meet a basic human need; the need for speed. The data would have supported the belief that people wanted faster horses because people preferred to buy and were willing to pay more for faster horses. This is where data analysis, reason alone, would have failed. What people really wanted, the human desire, was simply to go faster, to be freer. The opportunity for innovation lay in seeing the human truth behind the need. Being focused on the horse was missing the point.

Thinking from a place of understanding of and compassion for human needs, human desire, places the innovator in an expanded space within which the true nature of the problem to be solved can be clearly seen and frees the mind from the limitations of simply building on what already seems to work. Henry Ford was inspired by the understanding that people increasingly wanted a better quality of life, greater freedom and more control over their lives. Clearly the established paradigm was no longer sufficient and so the only way to more effectively meet these needs was to think in a new way. He controversially doubled his employees’ minimum wage, attracting and keeping the most skilled workers, raising their quality of life and allowing them to be able to afford the automobiles they were making, giving them greater freedom. He also created the 5 day work week giving his workers more time to enjoy that freedom in the belief that more time for leisure and less time at work raised productivity. Driven by his compassion, by addressing the human being first, Ford became one of the most successful (and richest) innovators of the 20th century.

Ford’s story illustrates the power of compassionate thinking when applied to design, technology and business. Conversely the failure to understand the human element is illustrated by the downfall of Nokia. By 2007 Nokia was earning more than half the profits in the mobile phone industry, what it had been doing up until that point was clearly good enough. Yet their focus on past success and current data was the beginning of their undoing. Just because people were overwhelmingly buying their phones did not mean that their phones were what people really wanted. What people really wanted from their phones was to be more connected and in a more enjoyable and exciting way. In 2007 Apple tapped into this unexpressed desire with the release of the iPhone. By focusing on aesthetics, a revolutionary interface and particularly in cultivating an app developer community the iPhone’s potential to provide new forms of interactivity, entertainment and user connection sealed the fate of the Nokia business model focused around the mundane tasks of calling, emailing and texting in a comparatively bland package. Nokia was focused on what people were already doing and wanted them to keep doing it. Apple was inspired to create something that addressed how people didn’t yet know they wanted to feel. “Good enough” was rejected with the understanding that people were ready for, and deserved, something better. As with the automobile, the iPhone was the technological expression of what was already humanly true, the outer manifestation of the inner collective shift we were ready for.

Compassionate innovation starts with the understanding that there’s a human experience occurring at the end of every product and instead of aiming to make that experience simply a better version of what already exists it seeks to go back to the drawing board every single time, to look at the underlying human truth that needs to be addressed and think forwards from there. Designing with reason and analysis alone, is simply reacting to phenomena without really understanding what causes them. Analytics reports or numbers on a spreadsheet don’t address what’s really happening when someone uses a product, the thoughts and feelings that occur, the impression it leaves on them, how it speaks to their personal aspirations, how it changes the way they live. Only empathy, reflection, the heart, compassion can provide the answers to these questions.

This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for reason and analysis. Looking at what works and what doesn’t from a data driven perspective can definitely inform the design process once we understand what people really need. It is this understanding that provides the “why”, the compassionate purpose, the reason and analysis help provide the “how”. It is this understanding that generates successful innovation because it is a response to something that is already true. Design without compassion fails because it represents an attempt to provide an answer to a question that isn’t being asked. From a purely rational point of view the Dvorak keyboard, patented in 1936, is a highly logical and efficient keyboard design, placing the most used letters and letter combinations in comfortable reach of the dominant hand enabling faster, easier typing. Yet the QWERTY keyboard developed in the 19th century remains the standard worldwide. The Dvorak model is purely reason driven and fails because it discounts two vital human factors; people are comfortable and familiar with the old keyboard and find it more than adequately meets their need to type effectively and quickly. No matter how much reason insists something should succeed, if it is being used to meet a need that people don’t feel needs to be met it serves no compassionate purpose and will ultimately be rejected. As Steve Jobs once said, “True innovation comes from recognising an unmet need and designing a creative way to fill it.”

This approach to innovation is on the rise, commonly referred to as human centered design. It is beginning to be understood that a design methodology that puts people at the center of the entire design process provides a more engaging and successful outcome. It provides a better product. The “passion” in compassion is the energy that drives true innovation and a passion for understanding and addressing human needs gives birth to creations that resonate with us, creations that truly have an impact upon our lives. As Tesla and Ford recognized over a century ago, our technology must “live and work”, it must understand and seek to address what we think, how we want to feel, how we want to live. It lives with us, growing and evolving with us in a symbiotic embrace, we change it and it changes us. It works to serve us, to connect us, to entertain and indulge our desires. Our technology reflects and accepts us without judgment. Our most successful technologies spring from a deep understanding of what it means to be human, they are a compassionate response to our human truth and therein lies their power to excite, engage, reveal and elevate us.

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