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What Moms Can Teach Us About the Internet

MBA students discuss their firsthand experiences from the Power of Social Technology curriculum at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

“I put explosives around my farm,” said my aunt in Chinese. A retired nurse from Taiwan with college age kids, she now lives in Toronto, “Anyone tries to steal my vegetables, I’ll blow them up.”

A few questions later, I found out she took community college lessons on email, instant messaging, and through Facebook. That led to playing online games from China, including one where you grow crops on a virtual farm and steal crops from friends (which necessitates said explosives).

I was shocked. She seldom reads English and chides me repeatedly about my bad posture and poor eyesight from using computers—I didn’t even know she owned a PC. All this I learned during a class assignment at Stanford where we interviewed “mothers communicating with their children online.” The exercise helps MBA students heighten our sense of empathy: the ability to embody the needs and values of others.

Consider that as companies mature statistics can outweigh personal customer relationships—disconnecting products and people. Consider how fallen leaders like MySpace and AOL reacted far too slowly to changing user needs, despite the mass quantities of data available to them.

After a couple quarters working with Stanford’s new design school, it’s become clear that making “data-driven decisions” without the right framework is like asking an alcoholic for wine pairing recommendations—experience is necessary, but not sufficient to produce skills.

The design process at Stanford draws from an array of fields, including social science, anthropology, and art, to offer tools and processes helping develop skill. One such tool is an Empathy Map, as described in Stanford’s design thinking primer. It helps turn observations into insights by breaking down user feedback into four categories:

• SAY: How users express themselves
• DO: User actions and behaviors
• THINK: What users believe
• FEEL: Emotions users experience

Applying the process to my internet-mom interview, a story emerged: the motivation of defense and retaliation (FEEL) drive players to credit card purchases of “virtual goods”, such as explosives (DO) to defend their property by injuring others (THINK). They justify their actions in the context of the game’s mechanics (SAY).

Now that we understand the story’s components, we can re-imagine it.

Suppose instead of creating defensiveness and retaliation (FEEL) driving the purchase of explosives (DO), we use the motivation of social status (FEEL) to incent gifting (DO). It’s through changes and experiments, inspired by deep user understanding, that let companies like Zynga create ultra-compelling online games that drive tens of millions of players to their site, after less than 3 years in the market.

Empathy gets us out of “I don’t understand, I’d never do that” box to see things through new eyes. Consider the Sweet Seeds for Haiti campaign launched by the social game Farmville, which in three weeks raised $487,500 (half its sales revenue) for the children of Haiti devastated by a catastrophic earthquake. Empathy let Farmville serve user needs to contribute to society while growing its business and bringing about material social benefit.

Indeed, there’s a lot to be gained from the right mindset and tools. Though I’d known my aunt my whole life, in 20 minutes I uncovered insights about her I would otherwise never venture to find—and insights open new opportunities to think about the world, and make a difference in it.

However alien ideas may seem to outsiders, designers employing empathy seem to work wonders in creating experiences people love, simply by stepping into other people’s shoes.

Even when they’re packing explosives.

For more on the evolving role of design in business, check out What Businesses Can Learn From Designers

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