My 6-year-old daughter’s favorite doll, Olivia, is celebrating a birthday. Naturally, my daughter and her younger sisters woke up early to celebrate. They busted into our bedroom prepared for the occasion ― two dolls in each arm, plastic food and serving platters, handmade streamers they cut from construction paper, and invitations to attend.

With three little girls in my house, it may not be surprising that we have too many dolls to count. We have doll clothes to fill a dresser drawer and doll accessories for all occasions. When my oldest daughter turned six, there was no question how we were celebrating. We were taking her (and her younger sister, who she kindly invited) to the American Girl Store to pick out her first American Girl doll and have lunch at their restaurant.

What Does Your Customer Want?

I spend my days teaching, practicing, and thinking about design. As you can imagine, it’s hard not to see my experiences through that lens ― especially when entering a retailer like the American Girl Store.

That store knows exactly what their customers want. My daughter, Simone, like so many other little girls, wants her dolls to be a real part of her life. They need be included in meals, school, extracurricular activities, and bedtime. As she often tells her little sister when she isn’t “doing it right,” you need to treat the doll like a real person.

In design thinking, we use empathy to set aside our assumptions so we can better understand the user experience and what is important to people.

Giving Your Customers an Unforgettable Experience

Like a good, customer-centered company, American Girl creates the full experience. They offer customers a real-life lunch experience for the dolls. At Simone’s birthday lunch, she and her sister sat beside their dolls ― the dolls in their high chairs at the table and all four of them with a placemat, silverware, and a menu. Simone was in doll heaven. Her doll, Olivia, felt like a real part of her birthday.

As expected, the relationship between Simone and her dolls is constantly changing. Sometimes Olivia is Simone’s friend, sometimes she’s her student and sometimes she’s her client at the hair salon. And so, American Girl has designed accessories for every situation ― there’s a school set with a desk, a chalkboard and locker, a gymnastics set with a beam, bars and leotard and a medal because your child’s doll is bound to win the competition, and there’s a suitcase for traveling.

The list goes on and on. American Girl has thought of everything your child could imagine. The company has also created opportunities for your child to look just like her doll, or at least what he or she aspires to be. There’s a selection of dolls for boys and girls with different skin tones, hair colors and styles, and accessories for children who may have special needs.

Using Empathy in Innovation

How does American Girl know what kids want? They use empathy to put themselves in kids shoes and remember what it was like when they were young and possibly deep in the world of dolls.

Something else smart that they do is sell a “Girl of the Year” doll, which is intended to be a contemporary character that is inspiring and relatable. And what’s even better, kids can submit their ideas for the doll. The 2020 doll is named Joss, and her motto is, “Fly high, defy limits, and discover the new you.”

What will the 2021 doll be? A second grader from New Jersey has already suggested a pandemic doll with a mask to stay healthy, a computer for virtual learning, a notebook, a pencil and a pen, and Lysol® wipes to remove germs. Only time will tell what they decide, but we know they’ll keep our kids at the center of their decision-making. For now, I need to get back to Olivia’s birthday celebration!