How Intuit uses design thinking to create empathetic experiences

Lionel Mohri’s path to events was a meandering one. He grew up on three continents and initially trained as a mechanical engineer. He was even offered a job at Apple, but decided  to pursue a role at IDEO, a design consulting firm. There, he learned to apply design thinking to a broad range of challenges, from “shipping products to shipping people,” as he likes to put it.

Today, he’s the VP of Brand Experience & Storytelling at Intuit, where he gets to, among other things, be a champion for small businesses—a cause close to his heart. Growing up, his double-immigrant parents opened multiple small businesses to support the family and carve out space for themselves in their new home countries. He’s able to understand and empathize with what small businesses are going through, first-hand.

I sat down with Lionel to talk about how his personal background influences his work, how we can apply the tools of design thinking to develop empathy-driven experiences, and how we can create multi-sensory events—whether they’re in-person, virtual, or hybrid.

Jena: You have an unusual background for an events producer, not only in terms of your education, but also in terms of your personal story. How does this influence how you design experiences?

Lionel: I always say I have no business being in this role, yet I believe that my past and my experience actually contributes to a lot of the success that we've been having as a team. 

I was born in Iran, grew up in France, and later moved to the US. As someone who has to adapt to new environments, you have to shape a story of your experience and build empathy for different cultures. Also, you crave empathy as someone dealing with a challenging transition yourself. So empathy has always been core to my journey.

Since I trained as a mechanical engineer, I started getting interested in how you apply engineering thinking to broader types of problems. In France, a lot of the public figures in government actually have a scientific or engineering background—which is different from the US where most politicians have a background in law. I always thought that I would be applying this engineering thinking to problems in society. 

I would say I still do engineering work everyday because I get to look at complex systems and understand how things are interconnected—just like looking at a machine. I also had to develop a skillset to help me simplify the complex and then communicate what we're trying to do to the masses. I don't do any CAD (computer-aided design) work anymore, but I rely on my engineering background to look at systems and their complexities.

Storytelling has become the tool that I use to make the complex simple, get everybody to understand an idea, and be able to take action on it.

Jena: What does a “jaw-dropping experience” mean to you? 

Lionel: I think it's about going above and beyond what people expect. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter what you do; what matters is how your audience feels. The outcome of a jaw-dropping experience is delight.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what you do, what matters is how your audience feels.

To be able to go above and beyond what your audience was expecting, you need to know them better than they know themselves. That requires a process. If you start with the intention of wanting to delight your audience, then the next step is to ask, ‘Well, who is that audience? What are they expecting? What do they need? What resonates with them?’ And then work your way towards crafting the vision of what you want to create. 

We're at a time where we've never been equipped with more tools to host incredible experiences—whether they’re physical or digital or hybrid. We have the ability now to create these jaw-dropping moments, but that requires us to think deeply about our audience and our intentions.

Jena: What has the pandemic taught you about creating jaw-dropping experiences in a virtual environment? What lessons are you going to carry forward to future in-person and hybrid events?

Lionel: As we move into this world of hybrid, we have an opportunity to think about designing for all the senses and bringing different layers and dimensions into our events. We can work on not making it one-dimensional where attendees just sit in a chair, listening to the person on stage or watching a Zoom call. Connections, visuals, and sounds are all really important elements of that.

As we move into this world of hybrid, we have an opportunity to think about designing for all the senses and bringing different layers and dimensions into our events.

One example that comes to mind is our leadership conference this past year, where people were experiencing the content through our virtual events platform and the microsite we created, but 80 percent of the delight came from the community-building interactions on Slack. 

People were constantly Slack-ing each other in a forum to make sense of the content, to comment on content, and amplify some of the key moments of that content. And we just left going, ‘Oh my god, people can walk and chew gum at the same time.’ In the purely physical world, we’re used to turning off our computers, turning off our phones, not speaking to our neighbors—just listening to a speaker for three hours until you get to the Q&A. You can actually be a much more dynamic participant.

We questioned some long-held beliefs in the past year and we need to carry those lessons forward. You can actually use these things in a coordinated way so you create a jaw-dropping experience. The design challenge is going to be tremendous and it's going to take courage not to jump back to the old way. It's going to take discipline. But there are a lot of lessons and insights that we just can't leave behind.

Jena: How can event producers use design thinking to create better experiences?

Lionel: There are many ways to distill design thinking. I've gone through multiple ways of talking about it to clients when I was at IDEO, and I love how at Intuit we have created the version that makes sense to us. It's not the right answer for everyone, but we define design thinking as principles, rather than a process. We have three principles. 

First, deep customer empathy. That's not just asking your audience what they want; it's more about knowing them—which means actually observing them, putting yourselves in their shoes, being in a place where you actually articulate their needs in ways that they can't always articulate themselves. Unfortunately, we often start with our stakeholders in our line of work. The CEO wants this, the VP wants this—but where we should focus our energy is: What does the audience need and what will resonate with them?

Second, go broad to go narrow. In other words, we explore multiple directions before we narrow in on what we think is the best answer. I think about this as the ability to think about everything as a prototype. Everything can be thrown away—everything can be built upon. That iterative process gives us time to refine the thinking and create experiences that go beyond our own imagination.

Finally, rapid experiments with customers. Try things very quickly; don't debate them forever. Take ideas to customers for feedback, run quick experiments, and get behavioral data. When it comes to virtual events, I always tell my team, ‘You can have the best vision and the most jaw-dropping experience in mind, but none of it matters if it's executed poorly.’ In a physical world, you can iterate on stage very quickly, you can refine in a green room—virtual is unforgiving that way. If production doesn't work, it doesn't work. You need to leave time for troubleshooting and experimenting with the technology so you can make sure that everything is seamless before the event.

Jena: How do you troubleshoot so you can ensure a seamless virtual experience for your audience?

Lionel: When you're so close to the work, you start making assumptions about how the audience will engage with it. You assume that if it makes sense to you, it's going to make sense to them. But that’s often not the case. The reality is you're way too close—you understand the intentions and you understand how you want to go from point A to point B.

Find people in your organization who are part of your audience and create a pilot where you have them go through the experience end-to-end or ask them to accomplish a certain task and just observe. Don't explain, don't jump in, and don't try to help them get to resolution. Go in with an open mind, not with a defensive mind. At this point, it’s so easy to fall into the trap of dismissing the feedback and thinking, ‘Well that person just wasn’t paying attention,’ or ‘They’re just not tech savvy.’ Guess what? That’s your audience. You’re not going to get an audience of people who think just like you. You need to observe and understand your audience’s behaviors and see where things are falling through the cracks—then refine the experience accordingly.

Jena: One last question. Tell us your most controversial opinion about events. 

Lionel: My perspective is we're not in the business of events. We're not even in the business of experiences, for that matter. To me, we're in the business of transformation. We're in the business of fundamentally shifting mindsets and behaviors by getting to people's hearts and minds. At the end of the day, people learn by doing. When they attend an event, they don't think, ‘Hey, the components of that experience were good.’ What they are left with is a feeling. What they do after the event solely depends on that feeling you’ve left them with.

We're not in the business of events...we're in the business of fundamentally shifting mindsets and behaviors by getting to people's hearts and minds.