The Empathic Lens vs. The Mechanistic Lens: Thinking about Customers

Over the years through myriad conversations with different entrepreneurs, I’ve encountered two distinct attitudes toward customers. I call these the empathic lens and the mechanistic lens.

Wearing the empathic lens, the entrepreneur imagines his customers’ daily life, feels their pain, and tirelessly works to correct that pain. He talks to customers constantly, and tries to know them at a deep level. His decisions are guided by his instincts and those customer interactions, and he tends to develop strategies based on what he feels is right for his customer. Many founding just-so stories are based around the empathic lens; the apotheosis of these is the story of the founder building something to correct his own deeply felt problem. Mike Woods’ founding of Leapfrog is said to be one of these stories – his child had a hard time learning and he could not find one single product that could help his son. So he built one.

Wearing the mechanical lens, the entrepreneur sees behavioral patterns across populations – trends, predilections, and numbers that describe behavior in equations or quasi-equations. He identifies opportunities to tweak these patterns or otherwise make them more efficient via a process or product not yet in place. Decisions are driven by data and users are understood according to models. The language of funnels, conversions, DAU’s issue from the mechanical lens.

One lens is not better than the other, and one won’t lead to a better company necessarily. Indeed they are both correct descriptions of reality. 

Think about a group of people bustling down a city sidewalk. Each person can be looked at empathically – they are headed where they are headed, in a rush or not, talking to another person or not, based on their goals and desires for that day and the context of their life. You can understand each person, their interactions, and the group by putting yourself in their shoes.

On the other hand, you could model them as particles described with a few set of rules and properties (heading, velocity, simple avoidance algorithms). You’d also have an accurate model of these people in terms of understanding and capturing their behavior.

My hunch is that certain types of startups favor certain mentalities. My hardware startup friends tend to be pretty empathic, and my mobile consumer friends are pretty mechanical. The best game startup people I know wear both lenses, though the leadership veers mechanical for mobile and empathic for AAA console games.

I’d bet the very best entrepreneurs effortlessly switch lenses depending on context, and favor neither. I’ve met a few of entrepreneurs like this, and I admire them most.

Musings on the family village


I’ve been thinking about how technology mediates us and our communication; on the condition of modern life with regard to this mediation; on the (fictional?) alternative of a pre-digital village.

The family village is a place where everyone knows one another. It’s not too big. It’s unhurried.

People work hard. But they’re not distracted. They don’t have ever-growing task lists. They don’t ever worry about “scheduling” – they know what they have to do, and what they want to do, and they know there’s a time and a place for all these things.

Things go more slowly. Is it less efficient than modern life? Maybe. But maybe – since there’s less to do – more things get done. People don’t know what the phrase “drop the ball” means. They feel overwhelmed when someone in the family has poor health, or they can’t put enough food on the table – but never because “their day was crazy.”

They socialize a lot. They do so over meals. They do so as the walk to and fro on the paths in the village*. They share a lot.

There’s not a lot of privacy, though people have spots where they steal away to get away from the rest of the village when they need to.

They don’t understand the concept of a nuclear family. Children are raised by all the adults. Grandparents don’t miss their grandkids, since they live in the same house, or down the street.

They don’t have that much of what we would call choice – they mostly do what their parents did, they mostly stay where they’re from, they mostly eat what’s cooked, they mostly listen to music that happens to playing**.

They talk mostly in-person. They love to get interrupted – by people.

They would hate:

  • Twitter. What is all this stuff? Does it ever end? Are these people saying these things? Who are these people?
  • Email. Stop giving me stuff to do. I don’t like lists, but if I have to use one, I’ll write it myself. And if you want to talk, just come over sometime.
  • Computers as they are today. There’s too much stuff in there!
  • Commuting. I might go far away for work, but I go for months, then come home. I don’t go back and forth an hour each day. If I really have to, I walk or bike, usually with someone. I don’t understand traffic.

A family village is:

  • slow
  • calm
  • personal
  • undistracted
  • warm

Family villages are based in reality, but they’re also a fantasy; a fantasy of a time that maybe never was. They seem to be wrapped up in the past, in nostalgia.

Are the future trend lines of technology and culture destined to extinguish this (mythical) past? Or will the trend line change, and move culture to a calmer place?

I’m not sure that the increasing ubiquity and speed of computation necessitates an ever more distracted, faster, competitive, harried, cluttered existence. It has led that way so far. The values of choice and instantaneity and individualization seem to lead to this distracted world.

We are dealing with that distraction by avoiding synchronous communication in favor of asynchronous, short messages: but those messages don’t really solve the distraction issue, and they certainly don’t capture the magic of a casual family village chat.

Calming ourselves may be more about removing than it is about adding or augmenting. However, it’s not easy for companies to profit through depriving their customers of a service or product. A lockbox for your phone probably won’t see widespread adoption. Replacements work better – Whole Foods replaces McDonalds. Board games replace single player video games.

We’re still at the early edge of sensors, wireless and mobile computing. I believe thoughtful design and the hardware revolution hold the promise of capturing some of the magic of the family village.

…what might these products and services look like? Here’s a grab bag of unbaked ideas:

  • face to face communication. simpler video chat: can we make this less invasive, less difficult, less time consuming – more like “stopping in?”
  • raising kids. could a social “baby monitor” allow my family pay a casual visit to my child? Can it be a window into our house? Can it make life less nuclear?
  • true face to face. Make it easier to be in person with faster, cheaper, easier travel. C’mon Hyperloop!
*this specifically reminds me of college life, which in some ways approximates village life.
**this may seem distasteful, but it feels like an accurate portrayal of the village.