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The Importance of Building Empathy

Companies or product organizations that are unsuccessful often will invest more time in finding a solution than they invest in defining the problem(s). They believe time spent dwelling on those problems is wasted time that could be spent on solving it. However, ill-defined problems lead to ill-defined solutions, and understanding users is a critical part of defining problems. At the end of the day, a product or a feature’s success is measured by how users respond to and interact with it. Unsuccessful businesses will think about what is going to drive their business forward and make them more profitable, but they lack the ability to truly empathize with the users who are using their product in order to develop solutions that will do just that. Building empathy for your users is a critical first step to ensure that you are building solutions for the right problems. So how does one build empathy for users?   

As humans, we are limited in our ability to empathize. It can be easy to forget that the experience you live every day is not necessarily representative of the vast majority of users your products are trying to serve. Empathy allows us to form stronger relationships and understanding of one another. By recognizing that we are not designing for ourselves, we can focus on stepping into the shoes of our customers. To build empathy, you want to think about the critical moments in a customer’s day, and how they interact with the product you are building. There are several frameworks and ways you can obtain information about your users that vary in cost. Here are a few examples of commonly used frameworks below. 

1.) Empathy Map - An empathy map is a collaborative visualization used to articulate what we know about a particular type of user persona. When filling out an empathy map, you are thinking about what the user is thinking about and/or feeling, what the user is saying or hearing, and what the user is doing in their day to day or while using your product. You additionally are filling out what some of the user’s pain-points are in their daily lives or while using your product. Answering these questions for a particular type of user are a great way to understand on a deeper level what their lived experience is, enabling you to better identify the right problems and solutions for those problems.



2.) Customer Journey Map - A Customer Journey Map is a diagram that illustrates the steps your customer(s) go through while solving a particular problem or achieving their intended job. When building a Customer Journey Map, you are thinking about the end to end experience that a particular user persona has, including their motivations (why are they trying to do it?), their channels (where the interaction takes place), their actions (actual behaviors and steps taken by users), and the pain-points or challenges the users are facing. It allows product managers and designers to see a product from a user’s point of view, and enables them to come up with better solutions.



3.) Extreme & Mainstream Interviews - Designing a solution that will work for everyone means talking to both extreme users and those squarely in the middle of your target audience. When recruiting people for interviews, think about the variety of perspectives each type of person can provide. Each will offer a unique perspective that can spur new thinking. For example, if you are designing a solution for a banking app, your mainstream users may be people who trust online banking apps, or those who use their mobile devices a lot, while extreme users may be those who don’t trust online banking apps, or crypto enthusiasts. Without understanding what people on the far reaches of your solution need, you’ll never arrive at solutions that can work for everyone.  

4.) Group Interviews - Group interviews give you a compelling look at how a larger set of the people you’re designing for operates. The best group interviews seek to hear everyone’s voice, get diverse opinions, and are strategic about group makeup. 

5.) Immersion - By immersing yourself in your users’ daily lives, you can learn a great deal about those users’ thoughts, feelings, motivations, goals, and pain-points. Immersion is a great format because the other methods of research pull users out of their normal behavioral patterns. Immersions are great because they allow us to observe users “in the wild” so to speak. 


Let’s talk about a real world example. In 2014, Google launched Google Glass, a brand of “smart” glasses for personal use that displays information in a hands-free, smartphone-like format. Prior to launching, there was no alignment on the core use cases of Google Glass. Google had assumed they would receive user adoption due to hype of the product, without validating the assumption that this was a product that their target users would legitimately need or want. The product allowed users to take pictures or scroll through the internet with just 2-3 hours of battery life. This was ultimately was no competition against other existing products with far superior processors and cameras. Furthermore, upon launch, they found that Google Glass was not socially acceptable for users to use and wear in public. Had Google gone through the exercise of empathizing with users to thoroughly understand their wants, needs, and pain-points, they may have developed a product that was actually useful for personal use. Though the initial launch of Google Glass was a failure, they were able to turn the failed product into a success story by refocusing their efforts on a different type of customer, ultimately pivoting their strategy to a B2B model. Through their research, they learned a great deal from technicians working at manufacturing businesses. As part of their job, these workers were required to refer back and forth between reading instructions and working on their actual project, which was highly inefficient and time consuming. Google Glass was able to give workers the ability to view instructions in their natural line of sight through a lens while simultaneously working on their tasks, improving overall operational efficiency and accuracy.  

In conclusion, as a product manager or product organization, it is extremely difficult to build products that are loved by the masses if you do not empathize with the user, and truly identify the right problems to solve. Empathy can lead you towards making better product decisions because it helps us understand how others are feeling so that we can respond appropriately to the situation. Designing solutions with users in mind that are both intuitive and useful will help customers to feel that their concerns matter, which is a winning scenario for your business.