Will you ever really know what’s like to be in someone’s else shoes until you walk in them? You see this struggle in every day in work, relationship and even design. Sometimes, people may appear insensitive because they cannot see issues from the perspective of others. A tool that is used often to remedy that is an empathy map. In this exercise, I watched an episode of Undercover Boss and created empathy maps for both the boss and an employee that he worked alongside.

In the show, Undercover Boss, they attempt to put the boss (usually a CEO or a member of senior management) undercover to go work as an entry-level employee in different locations. This can help them identify issues that they cannot see from the upper level. In the past week, I’ve read a lot of materials about user empathy. Undercover Boss uses some of the same tactics that designers use to gain insight on the way their users interact with their products. Think about it like this: for a CEO, his different locations are his products. His employees and customers are his users. In order to see issues that employees or customers experience, he needs to use his product, or work/visit his locations.

TGI Fridays

In season 10 of Undercover Boss, they tackle TGI Fridays, an American chain focused on casual dining. CEO, Ray Blanchette, has been a part of the company for many years. He began as a manager in training and spent 18 years working himself up the corporate ladder. He then left the company for 12 years to help flip other businesses, and then was brought back on a year prior to filming to lead the company. Ray did not come from money and worked his way to the top, but so much has changed about the franchise and the dining experience since then. It’s hard for him to see what his employee’s are facing. He visits four locations and meets four different employees. At the end of his experience, Ray leaves with a better understanding of what he needs to give his employees to help them and his customers.

Laurel, Maryland

He goes to Maryland to work as a bartender and is trained by bar manager, Brittany. At this location, he is looking to see the training process behind the bar. Here, he finds that corporate may not be keeping up with maintenance requests as well as they should.

Brooklyn, New York

In NY, he follows assistant manager Michelle, who works long and hard days. Here, he is trying to get to the root of a problem, while it was once a booming location, Brooklyn’s sales have dropped 15%. He finds out that understaffing could be his problem.

Bensalem, Pennsylvania

At his third location, he works beside line cook Abdul. Since he took over as CEO, he has changed about 80% of the menu. He wants to see if the quality of food is living up to his expectations.

Arlington, Texas

Ray knows that the number of people dining in have been declining across the board at his restaurants. In Texas, he shadows a server named Susanna. He gets to see just how empty his restaurants get during the day. She shows him her new initiatives for bringing in a lunch rush.

BRittany goes beyond the bar

One of employees stood out to me. Brittany is a hard-working woman who trains Ray first. She is a go-getter with a bubbly personality. Right away, she is eager to help him and offers to complete tasks with him as he learns. As they begin talking, she mentions how she has a passion for ensuring that all locations follow the “bar bible” so that a drink can taste the same in her location as it does across the globe. She wants to give the customer a great experience but reveals that some maintenance problems have yet to have been taken care of, even after reporting it to corporate. She also discusses her dark past that includes a struggle with addiction, something that no one would know about her if she hadn’t disclosed it. She sees TGI Fridays as a family, but sees a disconnect with corporate. At the end of the episode, Brittany is given the opportunity to move to Istanbul to help build a new location and train new hires.

Brittany showed a lot in the little time Ray spent with her. This empathy map helps capture who she is as a person.

Before starting his undercover journey, Ray set out to see how his company was handling new policy changes and to re-energize a company that he loved. What he didn’t expect was to meet amazing employees that are working hard to uphold his ideas while dealing with struggles of their own. With Brittany, he saw a woman who had the same passion for his restaurant but was missing the resources to fully perform. He was shocked to learn of Brittany’s past because she is such a positive energy in the workplace.

Ray learned a lot during his time undercover. This empathy map represents who he is and the impact this journey has had on him.

These empathy maps showed some similarities and differences between bosses and employees. As a boss, Ray has these big ideas for the brand as a whole. He thinks about how he can unite his company. Brittany thinks in a similar way. She doesn’t just think about Laurel, Maryland. She wants to ensure that every TGI Fridays customer gets the same great experience. I think this what united them as a team. This is what drove Ray to give Brittany the opportunity to go abroad and train new people to do things the TGI Fridays way.

Brittany provides Ray insight that he would not know if he hadn’t talked with her. She points out flaws in communication between the location and corporate. Ray finds this in all four of the TGI Fridays. As a member of the corporate staff or senior management, you are not working onsite or with customers, so there is no way to know some of the issues their employees see everyday at their place of work. Not only did he hear great stories, but he gained insight on his restaurant and learned things he never would have had the opportunity to without going and experience lower-level roles first hand.

I encourage all designers to sit down and talk about their products with their users. It can help shed light on issues you may not have even thought of without walking through it with someone who has a different perspective.

One thought on “Going Undercover to Uncover Empathy

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