In what the tech press has lately dubbed the “cult of disruption” surrounding startup companies, the common wisdom is that the only way for a small company to compete against established players in the marketplace is to innovate: to “disrupt” the marketplace with new technology.

But to Michael Ventura, CEO of the New York design firm Sub Rosa, one of the most powerful tools businesses have is actually a basic human skill: empathy. “The objective at most agencies is to find information that meets the client’s needs, and as it gets further along in the process, you start to think about the customer,” Ventura says. “At Sub Rosa, we hear the objectives of the client, then we go to the complete other end of the spectrum, and really understand the customer; what their behaviors are like, and we work backwards using a strong sense of empathy.”

Ventura calls the process “empathic design,” and he will describe it Thursday, October 9, at 4:30 p.m. at the Keller Center at Princeton University. The lecture is part of the center’s Creative Mind: Innovation, Design & Entrepreneurship lecture series. For more information, visit www.kellercenter.princeton.edu.

To Ventura, empathic design is all about understanding the behaviors and emotions of a customer, and figuring out what kinds of relationships and memories you want to create for them as a business. Empathic design is not just theory. It is a very real process.

In 2011 General Electric hired Sub Rosa to completely redesign its mammography centers. GE, which makes the machines used to screen women for early detection of breast cancer, was looking to increase its market share in cancer centers and hospitals. Normally companies can do this by reducing price, or by innovating. But in the world of medical devices, it takes years for ideas to make it from the lab to the hospital. A faster solution was needed.

GE also had the goal of getting more women to get mammograms. Breast cancer is the second-most common cause of death for American women, and government health guidelines at the time recommended healthy women over 40 get screened, but a third of women that age had not gotten a mammogram. (The guidelines have since been changed to 50.)

GE recognized that one of the problems was that the process of getting a mammogram is painful. The best way to detect cancer is with a “compression” method that squeezes the breast for better imaging. GE didn’t know of a better way to do it, and even if it did, it would take the better part of a decade to get a new machine to the market. So instead, the company decided to rethink the entire process of getting a mammogram.

“GE asked us to redesign the mammography experience,” Ventura says. “That’s one of the most daunting things you could do. The project began with the challenge of understanding what exactly was going to have to happen to make this experience better.”

Sub Rosa, working with research firm IDEO, studied the entire experience, beginning with booking the appointment. They interviewed hundreds of women and analyzed the results. As the interviews went on, Ventura began to realize the unpleasantness of getting a mammogram started well before a patient showed up at the office. “It turns out it feels like an appointment with death for many women,” he says. The women’s second-biggest complaint was the painfulness of the mammogram itself.

The interviews gave Sub Rosa many ideas about things they could change for the better.

It started with the ways doctors talk to women about mammograms. Rather than emphasizing the lethality of cancer, it was more effective for them to make it more of a “body maintenance” conversation, much like getting an annual physical.

Another persistent complaint was that the patients thought the exam rooms were too cold. Wondering why that was the case, Ventura visited the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and discovered the room was indeed always kept at a chilly 65 degrees, a climate that calls for a sweater, not a hospital gown.

“We checked with the hospital administration, and they didn’t know why the rooms were kept at 65 degrees, just that GE had told them it had to be that way. We talked to the engineers at GE, and they said 65 degrees is the best temperature for the machines. No one throughout that process was an advocate for empathy. No one understood that was actually a cold room,” Ventura says.

Sub Rosa recommended the thermostat be turned up to a more humane 75. After the change was made at Sloan-Kettering, women’s complaints of pain fell dramatically.

The company recommended a whole host of other changes, from the customer service procedure, to the art on the walls. GE incorporated many of the changes into its mammography centers.

Ventura grew up in Bergen County, where his father was the second-generation owner of the family fuel business. His mother was a child psychologist. Ventura started his agency 10 years ago right out of college.

“I really am the perfect merger of those two things when I think about it,” he says, referring to his parents’ occupations and noting that Sub Rosa deals with business, but also with understanding people.

“Empathic design begins with understanding the customer who’s going to experience your project at the end of the day,” Ventura says. “Then you can have the semblance of a great strategy.”

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