Designing with empathy: an interview with Doreen Lorenzo

Doreen Lorenzo is empathetic, a skill that not only makes her a better leader and product designer, but also a visionary. Her empathic skills have put her ahead of trends more than once in her career.
She was core in making frog into the global name it is today. Starting in a digital media role in 1997 – before anybody in the industry even knew what digital media was – she spent 16 years at the firm. In her last 7 years at frog, she held the role of President, where she was responsible for record growth. She left frog in 2013, to become the President of Quirky, a community invention platform, also ahead of its time. 
Today, she is the Director for the Center of Integrated Design at The University of Texas, Austin, which is “a first-of-its-kind design program at a public university, teaching students to work and think in a truly multi-dimensional and multi-disciplinary way” and she is the founder of mobile startup, Vidlet, a unique and groundbreaking approach gathering consumer insights.
So, how does empathy keep Doreen one step ahead of everyone else? You’ll have to come see her speak at C2 Montréal in May, and, in the meantime, read my interview with her:
vidlet

TH:
Tell me a little about the work you are doing now and how the work you’ve done over the years has led you here.

DL:
I’m doing the same work I’ve always done, only different flavors. I’ve always been associated with product development, whether it’s a physical product or a service. And I’ve always worked to make sure that companies understand how to make great products.

Today I’m focused on two things — I co-founded a new mobile video insights company, Vidlet.  Vidlet allows companies – both emerging and established – to understand who they’re developing products for and gives them the ability to quickly do quality, qualitative research for a fraction of the cost. Companies can easily reach their customers through their mobile devices, so I’m very excited about that. The other big thing I’m working on through my new role as Director of the University of Texas at Austin’s new Center for Integrated Design is teaching students how to work cooperatively to produce great products and services.

TH:
You mentioned the importance of having a multi-disciplinary team that works cross functionally when solving problems. What do you mean by this and why is it important? Can you give an example of this?
   doreenlozenzo1-cleanup-01-768x473
DL:
In today’s world, product releases no longer have long, predictable roadmaps. There are no longer these 18-month or 24-month cycles. Now you’re in constant contact with your customer. Every company, whether they’re producing hardware or software, is always touching the customer. This means you have to iterate quickly, and you have to engage with your customers on a continual basis. And to iterate quickly you can’t have a waterfall process where one team does something, sends it over, the next team does it. You need to have these teams that work cross-functionally, in a multi-disciplinary way, and that have the ability to quickly understand what works and what doesn’t work. One mistake along the way could cost a lot of time, and you want to be able to learn what works and what doesn’t work very quickly and move on from that.
TH:
What do you mean by empathy and why is it such an asset to leadership?
DL:
I’m a huge believer in empathy as a way to lead — we simply don’t pay enough attention to it. You have to understand what’s driving your employees and what’s important to them. When you’re making decisions about the organization, if your employees can sense that you’re listening to them and understand them, even if they disagree with you and the decision that you made, they will trust you and they will trust that you used your best judgment to do that.
Empathy is what people call a soft skill, and it’s not taught in business. I liken this to medical schools – medical schools didn’t teach bedside manner and empathy training until about ten years ago. Now it’s become par for the course. And if you think about it, of course doctors should have empathy toward their patients. It should be the same in business — of course leaders have to have empathy toward their employees. In today’s world, it’s one of the most important qualities you can have as a leader.
TH:
Why do you think it is that so few organizations actually speak to their customers? Why is this so important? How would you recommend that they do this? And what information are they looking for?
DL:
We’re undergoing a sea change right now with the rise of social media, and through access to apps like Vidlet where you’re able to go out and reach out and talk to people. This has really changed the dynamic between customers and organizations — it’s brought the customer right to our front door. I always used to say that product design was an elite sport — you’d have an R+D team that would come up with a technology, you’d have a product manager that would create something out of that technology and make a product, and then you’d push that product out to people via your marketing and your advertising channels.
doreenlorenzo2-01
Today that’s completely different. Today customers really will inform you not necessarily of what they need but what they’re missing and what their life is about. And the world of product development has shifted in that you really need to be good at insights; you have to really be good at looking for those missing pieces, and seeing how you can then aid your customer with it. We were taught years ago in marketing to control the brand, but today that’s all changed dramatically. Today lack of control really is where you’re putting it in your customers’ hands to help you develop better products and services for them.
TH:
For so many years, we celebrated the lone inventor, the mad genius, and the ‘rockstar’ leader, but you believe in team-based organizations. Doesn’t this just lead to group-think and too many cooks in the kitchen? 
DL:
The idea of the lone inventor is probably gone. Somebody will come up with a great idea, but it’s all about the execution of that idea. There will always be someone who’s leading the charge. There will be someone who will step up — maybe it’s the designer, maybe it’s the engineer, maybe it’s the product manager, but ultimately you’re using the input from all of these different areas to make the right product decisions; you’re really understanding all the aspects of the business. It’s very hard today to be the lone inventor because products are complicated—they have pieces of software, engineering, and design—these are complicated products to make. If you think about the products where you had the lone inventor, they were much simpler than what we’re seeing today.
TH:
What is ‘design thinking’? What makes for great design?
 doreenlorenzo3a-01-768x470
DL:
Design thinking for me is problem solving; it’s critical problem solving skills. It’s being able to quickly find ways to solve problems in different ways, looking at things differently, and using disruptive techniques so that you can retrain your mind from what it’s used to being trained to do. 
And what makes for great design? Great design really is something you have an emotional response to, that you want to use, and that doesn’t get in your way. That to me is great design.