It’s hard to tell someone their baby is ugly. 

A few years ago we were asked to evaluate a new product that had been developed out of some foundational ethnographies we’d conducted. We took one look at the new product and knew it was ‘ugly.’ Consumers were going to reject it. Sure enough, that’s what happened. One consumer after another came in, and couldn’t find the product on our mock shelf-set. And when we did draw their attention to it, they didn’t care about it. 

Why the antipathy? Somewhere along the way, the clients stopped empathizing with their consumer. Conflicting business decisions muted the empathy and steered the team away from their North Star. Now, they were heading east instead of north.

Not surprisingly, the product never made it out of development. The experience was frustrating. When we’d left them a year earlier the path forward seemed clear. Significant time, money, and resources had been spent developing the Big Idea. In the end, however, the client failed to reconcile business realities with consumer need and motivating insight. The voice of the corporation spoke louder than the consumer. It was no surprise then that consumers wouldn’t like the idea or see its purpose in their lives.

This wasn’t the first time we’d run into an empathy fail, and probably won’t be the last, although we’re working to change that. You’ve probably had similar experiences. Too many to count, I’d imagine.


For the insights professional, leveraging empathy to influence and inform insights and decision making is a key job responsibility. Empathy is the cornerstone of every great insight.

Unlike other functions where empathy is built and applied, the insights professional not only builds empathy but transfers it and uses it to persuade others in the organization. Consider empathy as a communication device as well as an insight foundation.

The ability to pivot from building empathy to sharing it takes awareness and skills that go beyond the norm. Insights professionals are like empathy conduits, building bridges between consumers and brands or companies.

Now let’s see how empathy is used at every stage of the insight lifecycle and answer the burning questions: At what stage did the baby get ugly? And why? 


Stage 1: Sourcing to Build Empathy

What’s This? As the word implies, this is about immersing, gathering data, and interviewing. In this stage you are developing empathy with the people you are engaging and talking with, whether they are customers or colleagues, in order to truly understand and internalize what is being shared. It is you, the insights professional, who needs to practice the skills to develop empathy.

Example: We recently took clients from a major food manufacturer out into the field to meet some of their consumers. It was the first time in years this client had done any ethnographic research in this category. In our pre-field briefing, we shared a quote from Intuit founder Scott Cook: “Before you step into someone else’s shoes, you must take off your own first.” The quote called attention to the important first step of empathy: dismantle your judgment. Our clients took the quote and our instruction to heart, and were more open to the consumer’s perspective during the project.

Avoid the Ugly Baby: Building empathy is critical in the sourcing stage. Listen without judgment, keep your eyes open, and use all your senses. In the earlier ‘ugly baby’ story, the team did excellent work and had empathy with the consumer in the field. The sourcing stage was not where they veered off course.

Stage 2: Synthesizing to Maintain Empathy

What’s This? Empathy is the foundation of an insight. Without empathy, an insight is merely information – something good to know but you don’t feel connected to it or motivated by it. At this point you are integrating observation and experiences. Consider what you saw and what you heard. This is your consumer. Internalize that. Try it on as your own point of view and see how the world looks. To bridge to an insight, apply the consumer’s point of view to a need and see if you can find the key learning. A good insight balances the rational analysis of a cohort with the emotional connection (empathy) to the individual. When you are done, every insight should have a human story behind it.

The synthesizing stage is when you start to pivot from building empathy with a consumer to transferring and sharing that empathy with your colleagues.

Example: How do you keep that powerful empathy alive in insights synthesis? Ground your work in stories. On major food manufacturer project I mentioned earlier, when it came to debriefing and synthesizing, we had clients share out themes and thoughts. Whenever a consumer was referenced we made them use the person’s name rather than a pronoun or the generic ‘consumers.’ For example, when you hear “they have to eat on the go,” it’s hard to connect to it. You end up thinking about your own situations and when you have to eat snacks on the go. Whose perspective are you taking? Your own.

Consider how your connection could grow if your post-fielding share out sounded more like a story. “Tom, a 21 year-old finance major is constantly moving between classes, a part time job, studying and spending time being 21. He has to eat on the go and looks for…” Just that small amount of story and detail paints the picture of the consumer and what his life must be like, and suddenly, you can start to see his point of view. You are establishing empathy between your colleagues and the individual consumer. By adding that personal touch, empathy keeps the learning at a human level.

This is similar to stories in the news. You may have sympathy for the 250,000+ people who died in the tsunami of 2005, but you have empathy when you hear the individual stories of those who survived or perished. Without the individual stories, you are able to connect and imagine yourself in their shoes, facing the unthinkable.

Avoid the Ugly Baby: Synthesizing requires you to do double duty. You’ve got to hold onto the empathy with the individual you met and start to build a connection to that person for your colleagues. You should never let go of the empathy you built as you will have to draw on it in the next stage. In our ‘ugly baby’ story, when we left the team at the end of the synthesizing stage, the empathy was there. They understood true north and were ready to head there. It underscores how important the final stage is.

Stage 3: Socializing to Transfer Empathy

What’s This? This is where the rubber meets the road. Remember the power of the individual story? Adding the human element to your insight and the way you serve it up will allow your audience to connect to it. Otherwise it’s just a bunch of data floating around. Logical thinking should always be present but the craft of sharing the insight involves empathy. An impactful insight telegraphs the what and the why, and leads you toward an implication. If it doesn’t, it won’t have the same resonance.

At this stage of the insight lifecycle, you share a story in order to help create empathy between your stakeholders and the consumers you met. You become the empathy conduit. You help others see the perspective of a consumer.

In our work, we’ve found that analogies and metaphors give the insight some stickiness. You can relate to an analogy and immediately understand where the insight is coming from.

Example: We once presented an insight using the analogy that a particular food category was like Chinese food – you crave, it but two hours later you are hungry again. That analogy resonated because the clients could relate to it and see the perspective of the category users. Had we just said “it doesn’t fill you up enough so you get hungry again” – you might get the message but you don’t connect to it with any veracity.

Analogies and metaphors are not easy to create for every situation, nor do they come naturally to everyone. You also don’t want to offer too many or else you will have people mixing your metaphors.

What’s key when socializing is to make sure you are giving your audience enough information that they are able to make that connection and see the point of view. This is where telling an individual’s story helps make the connection. You draw on your empathy for the individual consumer in order to share the details that will resonate and add impact. If It takes another minute in your presentation, that’s okay. The negative far outweighs the positive power of the connection you are building.

Avoid the Ugly Baby: What we realized in the ‘ugly baby’ project post-mortem was that the clients were unable to transfer empathy to others in their team, their leadership, and even successors on the business. They had skipped the socializing empathy stage. The misstep enabled the arguments of the business to outweigh the needs of the consumer. The client was taken off course, and away from the North Star.


Avoid the same ‘ugly baby’ fate. Keep your consumer front and center. Chart a course to that North Star. 

Come back to the insight and the empathy for your consumer when you are making business decisions that impact them. Most importantly, keep telling the consumer’s story so the empathy is rampant with your team. Find ways to bring the consumer into the decision-making room through story, visuals, audio, video, tangible artifacts from your visits and time with them.  I repeat, keep your consumer front and center.

Learn more about applying empathy at our upcoming empathy webinar on January 31st. Only a few seats remain! Secure your spot now.

What ‘ugly babies’ have you experienced?  How do you keep your team headed toward its North Star?

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