How Sony Learned That Product Features Don’t Matter; How Empathy and Evolution Worked Side-by-Side

By putting you in close contact with the private lives of your customers, empathic research helps you see your product through the eyes of someone with values, concerns, and emotional triggers that are different from your own.This perspective becomes absolutely critical when you are dealing with products that are highly personal–like photographs. So when I worked on a project involving the design and marketing of digital cameras during my time at Sony, empathic research on how the camera and its pictures were used became absolutely vital to our success.
We conducted the research in the late-1990s, when people were just starting to use digital cameras and camcorders. We approached the project with a lot of preconceived notions about picture-taking. For decades, images were about preserving memories. They were used to remind people of important occasions in the past, for example, weddings, birthdays, and so on. You’d set up the scene, take the picture, get it developed, put it in a nice frame on the mantle, and leave it there for years.
By watching and interacting with early users–people who had started using digital cameras well before they hit the mainstream–we learned that pictures were starting to play more of a role during the occasions and a more casual role at that.
People would snap informal pictures in the middle of the action and share them with people right on the spot using the instant display on the back of the camera. Picture-taking and picture-sharing added to the fun and action of the occasion in the moment. They wouldn’t be the best quality pictures–oftentimes people would take several pictures of the same shot–but now that they were “free” and disposable, getting the perfect picture was no longer as important. Sometimes images would then be saved, printed, and displayed, but many would remain in the camera forgotten after the moment passed.
This kind of behavior had not been anticipated by our product designers. They had assumed, as most of us had, that digital cameras represented a new, more convenient method of gratifying old, reliable emotional needs–to preserve memories of special occasions by putting images in photo albums and hanging them on walls. Many of our efforts had been focused on helping people take high-quality pictures and on transferring image files from camera to computer for printing and storage.
Instead, digital technology had opened up new opportunities to satisfy other emotional needs, like feelings of belonging and sharing during those special occasions. Our technology hadn’t been addressing those needs. In some ways, it had thwarted and frustrated them.
The instant displays on the backs of the cameras were small and functional, with low picture resolutions. The user interface for reviewing the photos was needlessly cumbersome. Finally, the cameras themselves could have been smaller, but few of us had foreseen how the usefulness of the cameras as a source of spontaneous fun would be enhanced if the size were reduced.
All the improvements you saw in Sony’s digital cameras during the decade of the 2000s–larger, brighter instant displays, easy gallery-style browsing, wireless instant sharing options, and ever smaller camera sizes–were spurred by these kinds of empathic insights into how people felt about cameras and about photographs.
It’s important to understand that we weren’t just trying to make Sony cameras better, and we weren’t relying on surveys to tell us that consumers liked bigger displays and wireless transfers (although we did that, too).
We watched and listened as these pioneering customers used our cameras. We heard them when those products failed to satisfy their emotional needs for spontaneous fun. Empathy also helped us understand why our products weren’t more successful. Our cameras were loaded with excellent features, but we had designed and marketed them with the intention of satisfying a completely different set of emotional needs–those of memory preservation. By focusing on promoting product features we had missed the emotional connection.
–Denise Lee Yohn is a leading authority on building and positioning exceptional brands. She is a speaker, consultant, and author of What Great Brands Do: The Seven Brand-Building Principles that Separate the Best from the Rest (Jossey-Bass; January 2014).

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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