Seeing the Invisible

There are many frameworks to help companies discover the visible needs of customers, but no tools to help them uncover the deep-seated emotional needs of customers. Yet, ignoring or misjudging these needs comes at a hefty price. 1) It leads us to create products customers don’t want. 2) It leads us to create products customers don’t use. And 3) it leads us to create products that cause distress, or worse cause harm. This void hinders our innovation potential. The majority of products solve the low hanging fruits: the visible needs everyone can see and competes to satisfy, but few solve invisible needs. These are the disruptive products that change the way we work, and change the way we live. Think of the first iPhone. It brought us more than functional value; it fulfilled universal human needs previous generations of mobile devices did not recognize. It made us feel connected and in-the-know. It brought us control and confidence, where we previously had uncertainty. It gave us beauty and a sense of coolness. It satisfied our human need for spontaneity and new stimuli. And it gave us a new medium for creative self-expression. 

Roadblocks to Successful Innovation

The past decades have seen the rise of powerful innovation frameworks such as Design Thinking and the Lean Startup. These frameworks have fueled a flurry of innovative products and successful startups. But many companies have also applied them without results. Not because these methods are flawed, but because they leave a void non-experts have a hard time bridging. “Get out of the building”, “empathize”, “get inside the shoes of the customer” are all great pieces of advice, but not so easy to put into practice. Unless one is a skilled designer or a highly-intuitive entrepreneur (like Steve Jobs) many practitioners hit the same roadblock. They cannot get inside the shoes of the customer and shift their frame of reference. This prevents them from perceiving the deep-seated emotional needs of customers. I’ve come to realize that one cannot tell someone: “be empathetic”; it does not work. (Try with your spouse or child, and see for yourself).

The Next Frontier: Uncovering Invisible Needs

This gap has puzzled me for decades, at both a personal and professional level. It prompted me to conduct extensive research to understand the barriers and devise a solution. Blending multidisciplinary research, I set on to develop a model to help companies debunk the hidden needs of customers below their surface needs. I spent the year validating it with design thinking luminaries, startups, and large companies across multiple functional areas. The feedback has been very positive. I now teach it in the form of a custom workshop. My approach cultivates new skills to make deeper more empathetic connections with customers and uncover the small clues that lead to undiscovered needs. 

My larger goal is to help businesses bring more happiness into the world, and reduce human suffering. We are all consumers, and know too well the frustration of products that don’t fully meet our needs, or cause us pain. Let us not impose the same onto others. Focusing on solving targeted pain points is not enough. Companies need to take proactive steps to not cause unintended distress. And unintended distress we cause, by missing or misjudging emotional needs. We also hamper our innovation potential, and miss on consequential products and services opportunities. People often say that all the good ideas are already taken. We can innovate on an existing idea by uncovering deeper needs. Look at Tesla. Who would have thought?


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