One of my all-time favourite psychology experiments (after the marshmallow test, of course) is this:
In a study on empathy, participants were split into 2 groups, each with a tomato. Group 1 were told the tomato's name was Laura, whilst Group 2 were just told the tomato tasted sweet. When the tomato was cut, i.e suffered 'pain', Group 1 showed a neurological response to the tomato being cut. They felt pain because Laura the tomato felt pain. Group 2 didn't have the same reaction because their tomato was, well, just a tomato.
The experiment* is brilliant, because it suggests empathy can be triggered for non-human objects as long as they are seen as minimally human in some way. In this case, giving a tomato a human name.
As more of our work and personal lives move from person-to-person exchanges, to interactions with a website, app or other digital interface, maintaining that humanness gets harder. Building rapport with a customer in a store, or with a colleague in the office is one thing. Trying to build rapport via a digital service is quite another.
This is important, because customers still crave humanness, even if they are actually interacting with a machine. Those companies that can harness empathy and use human attributes to create a great customer experience will prevail by building loyalty and retention amongst their user base.
Here are 3 companies making the most of human attributes to drive business growth:
The world of enterprise apps and solutions is a crowded marketplace where plenty of startups have tried and failed to make enterprise software sexy. Cue: Slack. If you haven't heard of it yet, you surely will in the coming months. A messaging tool for teams on a mission to eradicate unnecessary email, Slack has seen a 'rocket ship' growth rate of 3.5x in the past year alone and now has over 2.7million users.
This is no accident, Slack's viral success is due in huge part to it's empathetic design based on user needs, and to it's 'human to human' tone of voice. Slack's Editorial Director explains in an interview with Contagious:
"The way that we've built it, the way we've worked on building a friendly community around it, making sure we're treating people with respect, empathy and courtesy; all those things make Slack feel like a member of the team, not just a piece of software supporting the team."
Slack becomes almost indistinguishable from teammates. The extremely useful 'Slackbot', a cute little square bear, guides users through the app and chats to them in plain and playful English. These are the flourishes that are making it go viral and one of the major reasons it's succeeding where many others have failed. Whilst playful and cute, it's certainly not to be sniffed at - Slack has just been named one of the 50 smartest companies by MIT alongside Alphabet's Deepmind.
#2 IBM's Watson
IBM's Watson is "a cognitive technology that can think like a human". In reality the service is far from human, lacking the basic attributes of common sense, free will and value-based judgement. However its supercomputer power and analytical software is making waves. Alongside the highly sophisticated algorithm, genius branding by IBM of Watson has helped keep it onside as a trusted partner and collaborator, rather than a threat. To date, Watson has enjoyed collaborations across the world from a partnership with the Chinese government around air quality, to a fashion collaboration with designer Marchesa to create a show-stopping dress for the Met Gala. At a time where people are wary of the machines taking over, one can't help wondering whether it would have been met with such a universally warm welcome had it been named 'IBM cognitive system' or even Allo - the name of Google's ill-fated virtual assistant.
Car ownership is on the way out. Usership is in, with 'drive and drop' schemes like DriveNow, from Mini and BMW pioneering the movement. At first it was dismissed by the likes of the UK's Automobile Association, the AA, who doubted the popularity of car-sharing. Edmund King, president of the AA motoring organisation was dismissive, saying: “Drivers give their cars a name. For British drivers in particular, their car does take on a personality. They will spend hours cleaning and polishing it, and many still see it as their second living room, which they keep as clean or as messy as they like. You can’t do that with a shared car.” (Quote from driving.co.uk) Just one year later and whilst he was right about drivers giving their cars names, he's been very wrong about DriveNow as that's precisely one of the humanisation tactics the company has tapped into. Each of their fleet has its own human name. With over 700,000 customers in ten cities and 4,700 vehicles, DriveNow is one of the biggest carsharing companies in the world and growth shows no sign of slowing.
These three aren't alone when it comes to baking the humanness into the brand. According to the Design Value Index, design-conscious companies which place humans - the user, customer and staff - at the centre of all they do, outperformed the market by an astonishing 219% over 10 years to 2014.
Design and empathy wins: "integrative thinking, creative, and empathy-based skills designers bring are increasingly sought after for cracking new markets as well as providing a competitive advantage in customer experience."
With design-driven companies growing faster, and often with higher margins, due to the exceptional customer experiences they are uniquely positioned to create, startups and major corporations alike would do well to incorporate even minimal human elements to improve success.
If you'd like to receive articles like this direct to your inbox, you can subscribe to The Brief:
*You can read the full Laura the Tomato experiment here. Its official journal paper title is somewhat more scientific of course: 'Minimal humanity cues induce neural empathic reactions towards non-human entities.: Vaes J1, Meconi F2, Sessa P3, Olechowski M4. 2016 Aug;89:132-40. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2016.06.004. Epub 2016 Jun 8.
Image credit: Tomato by Susan Murtaugh