Pic by Karl Fredrickson

We all eat, but everyone dines differently. That’s the power of empathy — when you can understand what another person is feeling, you are better able to design a solution for them.

I had the honor of being part of a very exciting experience at the d.school, the innovation hub at Stanford University. A group of professionals from very different organizations (Google, San Francisco Opera, Safeway, Bank of America, Victoria’s Secret, to name a few) came together to work on a challenge: how to improve the food experience on campus. I was one of the many coaches who guided the teams through a human-centered design (Design Thinking).

People’s stories can be deceiving at first. We challenged the teams to go deeper and avoid getting stuck at a superficial level. Take the case of these two women, “Thelma and Louise”. One was a student; the other, an older friend that was just visiting. At first glance, food for them was like a trip of self-discovery –thus, the nickname the team gave them. They both travelled extensively around the world and could talk for ages about numerous destinations and food adventures. When the team started asking and pressing them for more info on what they really liked and didn’t, they realized there was a gap. Though these women gave the impression of being very adventurous –probably to please others-, their food tastes and preferences were more mundane.

Going deeper uncovered a more authentic and inspiring insight: some people keep their food preferences in the closet. It would be game-changing then to create food experiences that allow people to lose their culinary inhibitions, one step at a time. One end of the spectrum, the extremely adventurous with food, could experience eating blindfolded to focus solely on the meal. The other side of the spectrum, the least adventurous, could be invited to try a new ingredient or dish. Basically, we could allow people to be more mindful of where they stand and how far they want to go into their journey of exploration with food.

People’s emotions are deeper than we might think and they drive unique behaviors. One team interviewed a young man that had come all the way from Japan to study at Stanford. He thought Japanese food in the US was inauthentic, not prepared with real ingredients or in the traditional way. He was feeling so homesick (“Japanese food is so bad in and around campus”) that he actually thought of quitting school and going back to Japan. The team realized that the lack of authenticity wasn’t simply about the food but more about the overall experience. He wasn’t simply missing his food, he missed cooking and sharing that entire experience with friends and family. The team came up with a solution: build a communal kitchen with tables where he (and other people like him) could cook the real thing with friends, and teach them to appreciate both the preparation and food of Japanese cuisine by eating together.

Stories are less about what people say and more about how they feel. Another team was also dealing with how challenging it is for foreigners to adapt to a new food culture. Talking to users from different nationalities, the emotion of “not feeling at home” came up over and over again. After testing ideas that addressed the matter, they realized it wasn’t about recreating the feeling of being at home but rather creating a sense of community that would make foreign students feel good. A more relevant solution was conceived: create themed, family-style dining events where everyone could bring food from their country of origin and share it in a social and casual environment.

Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes isn’t easy. We just need to remember that we’re not creating solutions for ourselves but for other people. Letting go of half-baked solutions is the start. Listening to people’s stories, digging deeper into their true emotions, can be a very powerful tool for inspiration.

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