In engineering, there seems to be two mindsets - those that believe they can engineer a system without knowing how it looks and flows, the other side believes one must know the system. These two sides of the fence may both be capable of delivering a system; however, which do you suppose is a better representation of what the system audience requires and desires? I believe the empathetic engineer will always deliver a system that better matches that of the non-empathetic approach.
An intimate understanding of a user community allows one to more easily visualize how it will be used, as that empathy provides the necessary insight into how a user community will, and will not, use the new system. There have been many inventions over time in which the inventor understood the problem she was trying to solve. The iPhone by Apple was trying to solve the maddeningly complex menu and application flow that previous phone manufacturers delivered to the market. That team’s empathy came from them also using the same poor user interface gave us a better Apple product; the other mobile phone manufacturers only saw the error of their ways once they were being hammered by the iPhone sales. There are other examples of this in the market, one only has to look around and you will certainly find products that are doing far better than others. Empathetic engineering (and certainly design) provide that advantage.
Blindly building a system based on assumptions without other's input does not work, as we are no longer in the age of Henry Ford. Ford once claimed that had he asked people what they wanted, they would have said a "faster horse". I think his point was that consumers didn't know what they wanted, as they could not see there could be better modes of transportation. However, maybe Ford didn't know how to ask the right questions? Either way, one can no longer ignore their current and future customer base, as one can be certain your competitor is asking and listening, and will build that widget that the market needs and wants. Can one really deliver a super product if one doesn't understand how it really works?
Engaging your user community provides many benefits, but a key, the key, benefit is a better product. A product that people will want, will know why they want it. That level product engagement also garners a following that will have your new customers spreading the word of not only how great your product is, but they will also likely be talking very favorably about your company. After all, a poor product is a reflection of your company. So, building a system in a closed room without user input is really a bad way of doing business. After all, the purpose of a business is to make money...money can only be made with happy customers. Unless, of course, you are selling the only widget available, but that will be short lived since someone is looking at your product and understanding exactly what is wrong with it.
Here's to engaging your customers!