Brand Empathy: A New Focus on Human-Centred DesignWritten by Sophie Maxwell / Featured in: Business, Column, Creative / 03.07.2014.
Brands today increasingly act as a mirror to our changing culture. Along with being a barometer of everyday needs versus our ultimate desires, they are increasingly in a position to understand and answer our individual needs, and play an intrinsic part in enabling our wellbeing and shaping our ideas of changing self-image.
We each feel, understand and react empathetically on an individual level – marking our ability to intuitively resonate and connect with the world. And there has been a marked shift by brands to follow suit and adopt increasingly responsible and empathetic behavior, integrating social responsibility and impact into their brand DNAs, most widely represented by the increasing obligation to sustainability. Brands today are in a position of power to be more responsive, intuitive and empathetic, challenging society and driving positive change forward. And by innovating and designing, they can now meet our individual human needs and desires, and justify their growing influence and footprint in our culture.
Increasingly, consumer-facing technology brands have enabled important human advances, particularly in the field of health and wellbeing, with daily advances in everything from 3D-printed prostheses to life-saving apps. But the success of these technological innovations is dependent on an optimized and accessible user experience: Clear communication expressed through new, intuitive and desirable design languages.
The growing focus on individual needs means it is also becoming increasingly difficult to look at society as broad and generalized demographics. An example of this is the booming boomers, the 50+ age group. According to the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons), by 2015, those aged 50 and older will represent 45% of the US population, but we’re clearly currently selling everyone short by misunderstanding the changing behaviour and preferences of this age group – shortsightedly lumping them into a group worthy of only one design aesthetic and one marketing approach. Today’s over-50’s are an increasingly opinionated, individual and desirable demographic and we should be designing brands and experiences with their opportunities in mind rather than letting our limited viewpoint limit their possibilities.
Fashion and architecture are making steps to connect with and cater for this wide-reaching demographic, but what about brand design? Stzudies report that this audience is willing and has the confidence to try new things without worrying so much about the risks. On the flip side, we can’t deny that with age comes certain physical limitations. So what about innovative brand choices and ergonomic structural solutions designed in a daring, cool way? Brands like OMHU, Danish for ‘with great care,’ are answering these needs. OMHU is a range of premium medical equipment and accessories created by ‘virtue of necessity’ for the designer’s elderly parents when she failed to find well-designed aids for their daily living. Founded on the principle that life is ‘imperfect and beautiful,’ the collection of bright- and vibrantly-colored walking canes – including sport canes – cut through a previous ‘sea of grey’ for consumers with physical disabilities.
Understandably, designing for this demographic is a learning curve. It’s not just about taking a fresh look at user-centred design, but also human-centred design based on intuition and empathy. We can make the world a better place and activate change through challenger design thinking, and we should be fearlessly striving for this. It’s not about being worthy – it’s about designing for the greater good and the ideas that pave the way to a better, easier future. This should be as much a part of today’s brand and business model as any other.
We hope that, by raising this issue, brands will be inspired to reconsider their offers and understand that single-minded democracy is no longer the order of the day. Creating and designing for the individual, but on a mass level, is becoming a very real consideration – and we have the opportunity to design well and with specificity – to better inspire and enrich peoples’ lives rather than limit their options.
Photo: Carlos Ramalhete / Flickr