The ability to put their feet in the shoes of others is a virtue that too many people ascribe to themselves without careful consideration. When the situation actually calls for it – they find that it is not so easy.  As men, how would we really fare in the shoes of women? As women, how would we cope? We found the practical answer to these questions at one of our Design Thinking workshops during the Empathy session. After pairing the participants, we asked them to exchange their shoes and walk in them for the next ten minutes. It was everything from uncomfortable to practically impossible and the reasons were obvious – the shoes varied in size, shapes and perceived cleanliness.

At the end of that short exercise, everyone understood better what it meant to walk in the shoes of others. The men who had to wear ladies’ shoes developed a better appreciation for the ladies. They felt first-hand what they had to endure with those sleek high shoes. One of the male participants sighed that he now understood why his wife needed his shoulder to lean on each time she was putting on or adjusting her shoes. Ladies who wore men’s shoes did not find it easy as well. They built instant empathy for the men who had to wear such big, heavy and worst of all, smelly shoes. The little exercise helped build a sense of understanding of pains, discomforts and struggles of the users wearing those shoes.

Swallowing the “User” Pill

As providers of services, producers of goods or  leaders of people, you must immerse yourself in the world of your followers and the consumers of your products or services in order to understand their pains, discomforts, struggles and aspirations. Failure to naturally build user-end perspectives places limitations on your ability to innovate, not only does it hamper your ability to innovate it also make you to be unnecessarily stressed. The saying is true that “if you want to innovate more, walk a mile in someone else’s shoes”.  Every innovative project by organizations that is  not from  user’s needs, challenges and point of view will fail on arrival. This is because the only way you can understand how the mind of the user works is to know when and where the shoe hurts.

So how can you think like users and walk in their shoes? Based on several years of careful study, the following are some of the points that I believe could decipher what they think.

  1. Never take them for granted: you don’t like to be taken for granted, do you? One of the major mistakes organisations make is to take the point of view of user’s for granted, this happen very easily in organisations especially when you feel accomplished and blinded by growth. To think like a user begin with yourself, and understand that if you don’t want to be taken for granted then no user of your products or services want to be taken for granted therefore understand that your services or products or organisation are not indispensable therefore customers will always be there to consider other options. NO matter the level of your competence or accomplishment the users of your product are still the experts.
  • Live in the User’s Reality: Charles Green shares an inspiring story of Loreen Babcock. To figure out an ingenious way to give heart to a campaign for a Type 2 diabetes medication, eighty members of staff of the ad-agency volunteered to live the life of a diabetic patient. For fourteen weeks, the participating staff experienced things like finger-pricking, careful eating, regular exercise, etc. They immersed themselves in the world of their users and with this experience they were able to create an ad campaign that spoke to the mind of the people being served. The fundamental principles of trust is that we trust those who we believe understand us, if we don’t believe they understand us, we won’t take then into confidence or be swayed by their offerings. Remember the old saying “People don’t care what you know until they know how you care.”
  • Get Rid of The Talking Bug: a story is told of a zoologist who while taking a walk with his friend down a busy street, suddenly asks a question that caught his friend unawares. “Listen to that cricket!” The friend was shocked and surprisingly asked the zoologist how he could “hear a cricket in the middle of all these noise and confusion?” The zoologist took out a coin from his pocket, tossed it into the air and as the coin hit the ground, dozens of head turned in response. The Zoologist quietly told his friend, “We hear what we listen for. “Though we have two ears and one mouth, we however seem to have been bitten by the talking bug that made us talk more and listen less. To understand users’ point of view, start with an honest conversation with them. Your mission at this conversation should be to listen and observe and not to engage in defensive sojourn.  Let them do the talking while you do the listening, if you need to talk it should be with a view to ask pertinent questions that will brighten your understanding of the struggles, pains, discomfort and aspirations.  Practicing ‘the art of listening’ lets you into the user’s mind.
  • Empty Yourself of Your Biases: more often than not we are impacted by different biases which make us to miss out on opportunities for deep insights. Except we understand our biases and intentionally confront them, it will be impossible to develop solutions that create strong value to the users. To think like a user, you must cleanse yourself of the baggage of the various biases (conscious or unconscious). This require a radical mindset shift. Critically examine yourself and question those things (belief, and practices) that make you to be on the edge, those things that makes your stomach to churn, they are potential source of bias
  • Connect with the heart: Practice Empathy: data availability is not a problem to most organisations but the lack of empathy and without empathy, sole application of data cannot have transformational impact. . The author of Applied Empathy: The New Language of Leadership, explained the importance of empathy in an interview with Forbes. Ventura said. “So, in some respects, the only way they’re going to be able to make informed decisions is to use empathy to understand their data.” To think like the user, horn your skills in empathy.  Looking through the eyes of the users is a great way to develop innovation capability. To develop empathy, delve deep to gain an understanding of the person’s experience.
  • Embrace the Extreme Users: tosuspend bias, begin with the extreme users. Understand what informed their decisions. Understanding their world gives interesting perspective which is carefully explained by the bell shape curve of distribution. The extreme users are people who will EVER or NEVER use your services or products regardless of the situations.
  • Change the way you think and see: To change the way you think, you must change the way you see. Globally 50million people were affected by Alzheimer disease. The British nonprofit Alzheimer’s Research UK conducted a virtual reality research titled “Using Virtual Reality To Walk in the Shoes of Someone With Alzheimer’s” to help the public understand Alzheimer better. The organization launched an app called “A Walk-Through Dementia”, the App talks users through three first-person scenarios depicting life with Alzheimer’s. Before launching the app, public (user) were put in the middle of the situation.  Emily Matcher, narrated the scenario:

“In one of the scenarios, you walk through a grocery store. If you look up, the ceiling lights brighten until they hurt your eyes, a depiction of the light sensitivity many people with dementia face. While you’re turned away, the aisles rearrange themselves, giving you a sense of spatial disorientation. When you finally make it to the checkout aisle, you realize your cart is stuffed with cookies and other junk food. Some dementia patients, especially those with frontotemporal lobe dementia, have sudden and inappropriate shifts in eating behavior. In another scenario, you wander away from your son as he’s helping you home with the groceries, quickly becoming lost in a warren of similar-looking alleys. You scream when you see your son about to step into a giant chasm in the sidewalk. It’s just a puddle, but, to you, black spaces on the floor—shadows, dark rugs, too—look like holes”.

The app designers used various technologies to create the scenarios, from animation to 360-degree video to 3D game development tools. With post-production techniques, they edited the video in a way that enhanced the feeling of confusion, blurring details and morphing faces. PerePerez Ninou, the CEO of Visyon said the feedback was overwhelming “people said I can’t believe you were able to represent how we feel”.  When the app was launched,” Parry says. “A lot of people came out maybe a bit teary at the end.”


To walk in the user’s shoe, you must think like the user. This does not require the routine thinking but require discipline to think differently and see differently. It is only through this that we could generate innovative ideas that alleviate the pains of the users and give competitive advantage to you.

Olukunle A. Iyanda PhD, FCA, SNFLI.
Managing Partner DesignThinkers Group, Nigeria
Human-Centric Design Led Innovation Consultant