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.

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