How exactly do you convince strangers to donate their own blood? Money could be a motivator, but that's not a smart long-term strategy, nor an honorable one.

It's estimated that 38% of the U.S. population is eligible to donate blood, but only 10% do. According to the American Red Cross, the two most common reasons why people don't donate are: 1) "I've never thought about it" and 2) "I don't like needles."

However, they also discovered that the most compelling reason for people to donate was the satisfaction of helping others. There was a lack of awareness and a fear of needles juxtaposed with a deep-seated desire to help those in need.

In 2007, the American Red Cross hired the consulting firm IDEO to help them redesign the experience of donating blood. After three months of research, IDEO reframed the organization's focus on the customer experience. They redesigned the process and messaging, beginning with an understanding of why people are compelled to donate.

They honed their focus on the donor, experienced the act of donating blood from their point of view, and devised a solution to make it better.

How did IDEO know to focus on the customer experience? Why did they go as far as redesigning Red Cross locations in order to make them feel more like cafes or spas? What sparked the idea of allowing donors to take selfies while sharing their stories?

It was all due to a powerful little force called empathy.

Empathy Begets Understanding

In their book Creative Confidence, David and Tom Kelley, co-founders of IDEO, share a truth about the natures of creativity and innovation and how they apply to business:

The notion of empathy and human-centeredness is still not widely practiced in many corporations. Business people rarely navigate their own websites or watch how people use their products in a real-world setting. And if you do a word association with business person, the word ‘empathy’ doesn’t come up much.

What do we mean by empathy in terms of creativity and innovation? For us, it’s the ability to see an experience through another person’s eyes, to recognize why people do what they do.

Gaining empathy can take some time and resourcefulness. But there is nothing like observing the person you’re creating something for to spark new insights.

We’ve found that figuring out what other people actually need is what leads to the most significant innovations. In other words, empathy is the gateway to the better and sometimes surprising insights that can help distinguish your idea or approach.

Placing yourself at the center of your customer's experience takes conscious effort.

You have a vision, but so do your customers. The challenge lies in aligning your vision with customer expectations, being willing to adapt along the way, and eventually creating a process that is seamless and fruitful for both parties.

"Why I Give"

We feel entitled to believe that we understand the customer experience because we built the customer experience. However, this can create blind spots when we attempt to reinvent. Like a writer collaborating with an editor, a new perspective often illuminates that which wasn’t immediately obvious.

IDEO understood that this campaign to reach donors had to rely on emotions and stories. It was fear—an emotional reaction—that was deterring many potential donors. To overcome their objections, the messaging had to appeal to a call that superseded this fear: the desire to help others.

"Why I Give" was the result of empathy fueling the reinvention of the donation process. Through portraits and stories placed at donation sites and on the Red Cross homepage, IDEO designed a compelling narrative that educates and motivates contributors to see the value in their gift of blood, even if needles are a little scary.

Red Cross - Why I give Image source: IDEO

The American Red Cross shares its revelation on how this messaging overcame the emotional hurdles of the donation process:

In talking to donors and non-donors, IDEO found that emotional associations drive the behaviors of both groups. Committed donors give blood out of a sense of civic responsibility; non-donors are often daunted by the physicality of the experience and lack awareness about the value of donorship.

But as the population of committed donors ages and takes on fewer recruits, IDEO needed to look at how the American Red Cross could gain greater emotional relevance with potential new donors. After three months of research, IDEO reframed the organization’s focus to center on the donor and the donor experience rather than on the process or recipients of the donation.

We must appreciate the difficulty of changing one’s mind. We must be able to admit that something isn’t working as intended and be willing to explore an area that doesn’t seem obvious. The American Red Cross could have tried to win over non-donors by reducing the time it takes to draw blood or by making the facts more obvious. But that wouldn’t have fixed the true source of friction. It took empathy to find the “why.”

The empathy mindset helped transform how the Red Cross now communicates to potential donors. You’ll find that this newfound messaging permeates the organization.

In visiting their website, we are reminded that, “The need is constant. The gratification is instant.” We’re greeted with donor stories and a vibrant community full of personal tales like “A blood transfusion saved my life!” The Red Cross even ran a heartfelt campaign that supplied cameras to those helped by their programs, encouraging them to share their stories:

Of those selected to appear on the Red Cross YouTube channel, many emphasize how the gift and satisfaction of donating far outweighed any inconvenience or discomfort. Noelle Gardner, who was saved by a donation, candidly admits:

“Before this happened to me, I would never give blood, and I’m so thankful that everyone didn’t think the way I did.”

This kind of storytelling puts empathy front and center and openly addresses the concerns that may cause eligible donors to delay—issues that matter far more than comfort or a smoother donation process.

IDEO’s research and the Red Cross’ subsequent execution offers an important reminder: it is easy to think that a product or service is serving its purpose and communicating what it’s supposed to until the customer’s perspective tells us otherwise. We would not survive if it weren't for feedback; it's the kind of communication that is invaluable to adapting, learning, and creating meaningful change.

When You Need to Innovate, Start with Empathy

In The Lean Startup, Eric Ries shares a story about Toyota's lead designer, Yuji Yokoya, when he endeavored to reinvent the Sienna minivan. He went on a 53,000-mile adventure in a minivan, visiting all the states in the U.S., all areas of Mexico, and all the provinces in Canada.

He went directly to the source—the customers—looking for patterns and asking questions. He realized his old assumptions weren't true, and new insights started to emerge. He realized that the minivan wasn't about the parents; it was about the kids. This lead to a significant change in the development of the minivan and a 60% increase in sales the following year.

Like IDEO, when we aspire to solve a problem, we should take a step back, reiterate the jobs to be done and the friction our customers encounter, and then empathize with their experience in order to truly understand what we can do to help. Only then can we gain the kind of clarity that results in meaningful improvements to the experience.

Empathy can be a difficult process, but with the right discipline, patience, and mindset, we can stop squandering our efforts and resources and begin to create the experience and impact that our customers rightfully deserve.

Paul Jun

About the author: Paul Jun is on the marketing team at Help Scout, the invisible help desk software. Learn how Help Scout takes the headache out of email support.