Chris von Dohlen, director of transformation leads a team in thinking about human-centered innovation
04 October 2021

How Empathy Informs Innovation

Marvin’s director of design transformation discusses the role that empathy plays in human-centered innovation for product development.


Empathy is one of the three pillars of human-centered innovation. Without research and insights rooted in empathy, we could never develop products and solutions that people need and want. By honing a deep understanding of our customers’ feelings, pain points, and desires, we’re able to develop more than just windows and doors, but products that solve problems and spark delight. This is why empathy is essential when it comes to human-centered innovation. 

The design of Marvin Skycove, for example, involved immersion in empathy. This glass alcove projects out from a room and creates space for light, comfort, and connection, expanding a home’s footprint by up to 20 square feet. The Skycove itself is a stunning piece of design and engineering, but what you don’t see when you look at the finished product is all the research that went into it.  

Preceding the actual birth of Skycove, members of The Marvin Design Lab, Product Management, and Research & Development teams visited people’s homes to observe their daily routines and ask questions. A key insight that emerged was that people sought out cozy, well-lit nooks in which to curl up and relax. By empathizing with homeowners in this case, we were able to understand a need and from there, design a solution. 

The starting point for all innovation at Marvin is a solid understanding of the human aspect embedded in any given challenge. By doing so, we can be sure we’re solving for something that matters. The alternative is that we run the risk of wasting time and money, focusing on things that no one cares about.  

How do we find our way into this empathy process? How do we learn about our customers and empathize with them? Below are the 6 key things we consider when it comes to using empathy in product design. 

Seek Out Unique People and Study the Extremes  

In any given project, there will be various types of people from whom to learn. Innovators like to study people who exhibit extreme behaviors (e.g., people who only eat one meal a day) or are in extreme environments (e.g., small living space in Tokyo). People at the extremes tend to do things differently than their peers. Those differences can help us quickly understand opportunity areas for innovative solutions. For research that led to the development of Skycove and Marvin Awaken Skylight, we traveled to light extreme locations like California, Seattle, Alaska, Denmark, and remote Minnesota to understand the extreme conditions and lack of light during the winter months. 

Spend Time with Them in Their “Natural Habitat”  

You can learn a lot about a person by going to the places in which they live, work, and play. Often the spaces around us influence how we think and act, alone and with others. There can be insights and clues to their needs hiding in plain sight.  

Be Curious About Why They Do What They Do 

With innovation research, the “why” is often more important than the “what.” For instance, someone may decide to get rid of their car and use a bike as their main mode of transportation. Trading a car for a bike is “what” they did, but to get at the “why” someone would choose to get rid of their car, you must gain insight into what they believe about the world. Armed with that understanding, you could develop a whole host of products or services that could help them in different aspects of their lives.  

Get Past Your Own Assumptions 

When doing research, we must be aware that our own past experiences and assumptions can lead us astray. The key is to set your knowledge aside and be open to learning from others. This is partly about doing research as if you are a novice, not an expert. It’s about remembering that the people you are researching are the experts, and that your role is to learn as much as you can about them. It’s hard to learn when you’re trying to prove how much you know.  

Look for Connected Needs 

Needs are the things that people must do in any situation. The interesting thing about needs is that they usually don’t exist in isolation. Take the need to eat, for instance. People don’t typically eat simply to eat. They eat so they can do other things, like dancing or exercising. Why do they need to exercise or dance? To spend time with others or to feel good. Gaining a perspective on needs can help us better understand what they are trying to achieve. 
Use an Empathy Map to Encourage Holistic Assessment 

An Empathy Map is a tool that identifies unique, isolated aspects of individuals’ experiences to allow for better understanding. These aspects include doing, seeing, hearing, thinking, and feeling. Some versions of the tool ask you to capture an individual’s pains (problems they experience) or gains (things that are working for them). Through exploring the different parts of the Empathy Map, you can gain a new perspective on what is going on. 

At Marvin, gaining empathy and a better understanding of our customers--whether a builder, an architect, a homeowner, a dealer, or even a team member--can have a profound impact. This better understanding enables Marvin to deliver on its purpose: to imagine and create better ways of living.