Empathy First: How Aged Care Providers Understand their Consumers and Drive Innovation

5 years ago
innovAGEING > Media + Blog > Blog > Empathy First: How Aged Care Providers Understand their Consumers and Drive Innovation
Category: Blog

With public trust in aged care decreasing, and consumer experience not meeting consumer expectations, how we support and care for older Australians is at a crossroads. To survive and thrive in this vital industry, service providers must look at new ways to innovate that are practical, collaborative, cost-effective, and most importantly, consumer-centric.

In our series of articles on innovation in aged care we have looked at what aged care innovation means, and how providers can better understand their consumers through research to build tangible insights. In this article, we look at design thinking and specifically, empathy, to truly understand consumers and deliver more human-centred innovation.

Understanding older Australians
People over the age of 65 do not fit into one or two neat categories of ‘consumers’ with standard sets of needs and desires. The very nature of ‘being older’ is also changing as we live longer and healthier lives, but live with the reality of increasingly complex chronic health conditions into old age.

Meeting consumer needs in aged care means recognising that the 65 years and over age group is a deep reflection of the national demographic diversity – this includes:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities
  • Culturally and linguistic diversity communities
  • LGBTIQ communities

Within this cohort, there are need patterns, attitudes and behaviours that can guide strategy and help providers to design better services, packages and facilities, for example:

Conducting research and building personas1 is a good starting point but providers need to go even deeper to see the world from their consumers’ perspectives. For example, as we grow older we tend to feel younger than our biological age. A recent study in the US and Canada showed that, despite the presence of illness, more than half of the participants felt at least 20 years younger than their age.2

Providers need to understand these subtle nuances to truly walk in their consumers’ shoes and build services that meet their needs.

Empathy and innovation
Empathy is neither sympathy nor insight. It is the ability to deeply understand consumers, and to truly see and feel from their point of view. Empathy is the core of the human-centred design technique for understanding and sharing the feelings of another in order to innovate and design for them.

Another way to look at empathy is the ability to get beyond what consumers ‘say’ they feel rationally – and into the underlying emotional drivers of their decisions. This is what they think and feel – the ‘why’ of decision-making. This information forms a basis from which we can truly start to think about meaningful innovation.

One of the key reasons many new technologies, innovations and start-ups fail is because there is no market for them – no consumer need. For aged care, this is doubly important because there is a human being at the centre of all these solutions.

Building empathy for consumers is a major competitive advantage – as it means spending less time on innovating products and services where there is no demand. From developing new products or services to designing communications campaigns that really resonate. It might be innovating the way a provider does things – the channels to market or the back office so that it transforms experiences. The key thing is to find and understand problems being faced in detail before jumping to a solution.

Solving problems
A recurring problem in aged care are often issues in communication between a provider and consumers and/or their family.

Rather than jumping to a solution or a new technology as the silver bullet, one would start by finding the underlying cause of the problem. This might start with tracing the experience of specific consumers through the current process to identify key consumer needs and pain points.

One can then craft specific and meaningful problem or opportunity statements. It is off the back of these consumer-centric opportunity statements that providers can start to design new and creative solutions for solving consumer’s needs and applying new technologies to solving them.

Beyond innovation – How empathy helps the entire organisation

Deeper understanding of the consumer
How can providers innovate or design for someone they don’t have empathy for?

Uncovering real world insights
To design for someone, providers require real needs and insights, not the sort made up in the ivory tower.

Motivates teams
Getting teams out of the office and into the real world to experience what the consumer is experiencing, observing them, meeting with them, and becoming deeply involved in their lives – generates higher motivation.

Giving meaning
Empathising with consumers enables you to identify problems worthy of solving. It gives meaning to one’s job, and a reason to come to work every day.

Make an impact
Too many organisations waste their time inventing products and services for non-existent needs. Empathising first helps uncover needs that consumers want to see solved.

Three steps to better empathy 

Here are some techniques and tips to understand consumers that providers can apply to designing new products, services and experiences that create value and satisfy needs.

  1. Be the consumer
    To help build empathy with the consumer, providers can spend time being them – living in their shoes. This is about experiencing the situation the user experiences – spending ‘a day in the life’ of a consumer for example experiencing a home care visit, or navigating the range of services from an organisation. 
  2. Be with the consumer
    Providers can build further empathy by observing the consumer in situ and interviewing them about their experiences afterwards. In FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) companies have gone super market shopping with consumers, watched them cook with the ingredients they purchased, even had dinner or breakfast with them and then asked them about their experience afterwards. In the aged care sector, providers could spend a day with a resident, or with a home care package consumer who is having their initial assessment or is receiving and trying to understand their home care statement. 
  3. Learn about the consumer 
    The third technique involves getting a 360-degree picture of them from the people around them such as their families or regular care providers or other experts in the field. For example, in aged care, this could be the daughter of an elderly consumer or an expert could be a nutritionist specialising in the elderly. Both will have specialised and/or deeper knowledge of the consumer, and share needs and insights the consumer may not have or be able to share.


Aged care is about people. Providers in the sector are facing rising community expectations, greater requirements around quality and safety, and only marginal increases in funding. Given the various pressures that providers face, jumping to a new technology solution can be very tempting. 

However, a deeper focus on innovation is critical and this must address the core issues at hand.  Technology may be part of the solution, but evaluating it through human-centred design is vital.  

Empathy is not only a critical element to a more human-centred way to innovate, it is the foundation of a more meaningful and practical approach to doing business that creates value and satisfies human needs.

Nathan Baird 
innovAGEING Expert-in-Resident for Consumer Centricity
Partner, Design Thinking, KPMG

Nicki Doyle
Partner, Health, Ageing, and Human Services, KPMG

For more information:

1 Shaping the Future of South Australia – Ageing Well Report, KPMG, CEDA, 2016

2 The mask we wear: Chronological age versus subjective ‘age inside’, L. F. Carver M.A., PhD., International Journal of Aging Research, 2019