Empathy, Convenience, and the Modern Publisher

Customers don't know what they want. Because of that, if you're looking to develop viable new revenue-growth strategies, you can't just ask them what they want. As Henry Ford famously said, "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses."

In order to move beyond "faster horses," you have to bring empathy, attention, and imagination to your customer interactions.

The beginning part of empathizing with customers is often to think about what's more convenient for them -- or what will be. Some people narrow "convenience" down to "saving time" for the customer, but time savings is only one form of convenience. Portability is another. Reliability is yet another. It can even be convenient to have something really cool (Apple Watch, anyone?). In a competitive world, it can be convenient to have a conversation-starter. It only goes to show that there are many ways things can be made convenient. Empathy about the context and intention of the user helps identify the best questions and zero-in on the most viable answers.

Netflix is a perfect example of a company that has worked hard on honing their convenience model. Their DVD rental service was able to crush the life out of Blockbuster because it afforded customers four major forms of convenience -- no trip to the store to rent or return; no need to actively pay except for the first transaction; no humiliating public shaming at the hands of a teenage clerk imposing a late fee; and no fear of coming up empty after a trip to the strip mall. Netflix's DVD rental service was convenient because it let users be more passive and keep their pride. It may not have saved much time, but it was less stressful and less taxing.

Looking beyond the DVD, Netflix has continued to cater to convenience, making its streaming service available through most devices (Apple TV, most wi-fi-enabled Blu-ray players and TVs, online). It has allowed multiple users per account. It has retained the convenience of its subscription payment model. The Netflix platform was so purpose-built for convenient watching that it has spawned new vocabulary -- binge-watching. Netflix has catered to our love of convenience.

Convenience has become table stakes for customer acquisition and retention. Netflix has leveraged its reputation for convenience into original programming wins, as have Amazon and Hulu. Google dominates through convenience and reliability on at least two fronts -- search and Google Maps (sorry, Apple Maps, but you blew it). Google continues to bring clever insights to its search interface, including restaurant traffic graphs (so you can see when your favorite place is busiest and plan accordingly) and other empathy-informed techniques.

Publishers often begrudge the PDF as a technology from yesteryear, and look forward to what's next. "What's next" should be driven by empathy for the information user, not a desire for new tech. The PDF endures because it is portable, reliable, and standard. It's not sexy. It's not particularly cool or exotic. But it works, it's easy to save and search and share, and it's standard. The bar for it's substitute is informed by these traits, at least. Perhaps there is something better, but we'll only find that by making something more convenient than the PDF. Can we?

PLoS has been a major innovator because of its convenience. For many journals, the second- or third-choice publication after initial submission is PLoS ONE. It saves time, but also provides a decent brand and impact factor, especially when compared to many specialist journals. And it allows researchers to move on from incremental research findings.

As an industry, publishers can seem far from empathic. At a recent meeting, an audience member asked, "How do you make customers use something you've developed?" Empathy is the opposite of this -- it is, "How do you develop something customers want to use?"

Did Henry Ford have empathy? Certainly. He paid his workers well so they could afford his cars. That's empathy and business together. Based on that, let's give Henry today's final word:

"If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own."