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David Kepron

Brain Food: Technempathy

Using technology in the service of empathic extension

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As we think about the current integration of technology into retail places, we are more likely to see, in our mind’s eye, a sea of screens – in our hands, on the wall, a building, the back of a seat, a bus stop and so on. There is no question that ubiquitous digital computing will be part of our everyday lives, but it won’t be the digital wallpaper we see today.

The goal of technology integration in the creation of customer experiences is to help sell goods and services. The underlying premise  should be that technology is best used when it benefits the relationship between shoppers and retailers or brands. Having the right marketing communications at the right time, in the right location, helps deliver a message that triggers positive emotion and desire, initiating a new connection or supporting an existing relationship.

In any scenario, technology works best when serving customers and brands in a way that deepens their connection. Not simply by giving customers access to a never-ending assortment of products from any place on the planet, or showing video loops that aim to enliven the space. Rather, it will support the exchange of ideas that are at the heart of a brand.

One of the inherent properties of great technology applications are their ability to extend the emotional mind of one customer to a network of likeminded brand loyalists. Our brains have a built-in neural mechanism called “mirror neurons” that allows us to infer intent and sense the reaction of others by reading their facial expressions and body language. And when we read written text, hear or see stories, areas of our brains light up as if we were experiencing it ourselves.

Our ability to feel the emotional content of a story is apparent to any of us who have watched a movie and cried, hated a character in a book or felt the exhilarating joy of an athlete winning a gold medal at the Olympics. In the same way, technology can broaden our emotional connection to the people in our immediate social groups, as well as a larger cognitive coalition that extends to the global population.

Despite the research that suggests technology is disengaging us from each other and making us less empathic (“Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time: A Meta-Analysis,” by Sara H. Konrath), it’s ultimately up to us to use it in a way that can bring us together, and enable more meaningful, connected relationships between all aspects of the retail business and its customers.

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For some time, I looked for a term that represents the seemingly dichotomous points-of-view within what is often seen as technology’s potentially negative influence on culture and its ability to expand the mind and draw people together.

The use of technology needs to embrace, be infused with, or be in the service of “technempathy.”

How might we define technempathy?

Technempathy is a term I coined to describe the marriage of digital technology and empathy: The coherent union of left and right brain capacities to create an integrative and meaningful customer experience. It is about harnessing technology to enhance the empathic connection between people. It is an enabler of, or a conduit between, two or more people in a relationship.

Emerging technologies will enable technempathy to develop in ways that will allow our digital devices to move out of their third-party peripheral position and place them directly into the flow of our brand experiences and buying processes. Shoppers’ technology will “know” them because it will follow the Hansel-and-Gretel trail of ones and zeros left behind when shoppers access the world through their digital devices.

Our relationship with personal tech devices will continue to deepen. What we might now perceive as a disconnection between humans and machines will eventually fade as our digital devices become part of who we are – both figuratively and literally. Along the way to this man-machine merge, our technology will be “learning” with us. Computers are a long way from being aware in a conscious sense, but algorithms will continue to parse the details of the digital trails we leave, and will be continuously better at predicting our next moves.

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How do we cultivate mindfulness in the marketplace? How do we reconcile technology and empathy? 

We need to imbue stores and decision-making processes about technology integration through a filter of technempathy. Does our introduction of digital technology in the customer journey support the empathic relationship with customers, or is it merely eye candy driven by the whims of digital trends?

If it doesn’t serve in building empathic connections, it ultimately won’t matter to customers. “Cool” wears off quickly, and trendiness will become even more unforgettable when the pace of our digitally distracted world continues unabated. But significant and relevant relationships can last a lifetime.

When used in crafting shopping experiences that engage the emotional, empathic, intuitive, creative and relational right brain, a practical understanding of technempathy helps us foster meaningful relationships, not just between customers and retailers and their products or services, but among all of us who are living in a digital world where we often struggle to be “present.”

David Kepron is the creative director of Little’s Brand Experience Studio and author of “Retail (r)Evolution: Why Creating Right-Brain Stores will Shape the Future of Shopping in a Digitally Driven World,” published by ST Media Group Intl. and available online from ST Books. His retail design work focuses on the creation of relevant shopping experiences at the intersection of architecture, sociology, neuroscience and emerging digital technologies. @davidkepron; www.retail-r-evolution.com; www.littleonline.com

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