Building Better Products With Genuine Customer Empathy

Empathizing with End Users

Over the years, various techniques and processes have been introduced to help software companies understand the psychology and emotional side of software product design, improve software usability, and better serve the customers. However, many companies continue to push products and services they think customers need instead of fulfilling customers’ real pressing needs, resulting in disappointing product sales and low customer engagement. It is even more true in the enterprise software development domain. Often this happens because creators of the products (including product managers, designers, and engineers) do not necessarily put themselves in the users’ shoes and think from their perspectives, which is called empathy.

Empathy is to see the world through another person’s eyes. Inside an organization or a company, the Power of Empathy helps us build better collaboration and alignment and create trust and emotional SafeNet. When we engage with our customers, empathy also plays an essential role. It enables us better understand and care about those we serve. By empathizing with our customers on their pain points, challenges, and pressing needs, we can design and develop more creative solutions for delivering the desired value our customers are looking for and meeting their expectations.

Empathy is the Foundation of Design Thinking

Designing Thinking has become a widely adopted methodology and framework in product design to create innovative ideas and solve problems. It is a non-linear process, and there are multiple phases in this process: Observe, Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test, and Productize. Those phases of Design Thinking are not meant to be sequential. Instead, we often take them parallelly or iteratively to facilitate the most learning and value.

Figure 1. Design Thinking Process for Validating Product Ideas Iteratively

Empathize is a very critical initial phase among those phases, and it lays the foundation of customer understanding. We cannot begin a product design without a deeper understanding of the target customers. To gain insights into what to build for the targeted customers, we as product creators need to empathize with the people for who we are designing the software. We need to understand their needs, behaviors, feelings, thinkings, and why they demonstrate such behaviors, feelings, and thoughts when interacting with the products in a real-world setting.

For instance, when we design an in-the-field mobile application for assisting constructions workers with their field activities and facilitating better collaboration, we must be mindful of the environment where the construction professionals work, the activities and core problems they need to handle in the field, and how they interact with the mobile devices:

  • The majority of the construction workers work at heights and without access to a traditional power source that they can use to recharge their mobile devices before the day is done;
  • Direct bright sunlight makes it hard to see a thing on the mobile device display;
  • The construction site noise can adversely impact the voice recognition capability;
  • Many construction sites (especially those in remote areas) have poor or no cellular coverage, and sufficient data speed and reliability is not guaranteed for achieving real-time data synchronization;
  • Construction workers often wear protective gloves to protect them from workplace hazards, making it hard for them to use touchscreen and type on the small mobile device screen;
  • Field users operate in dangerous conditions under intense time and resource constraints. These teams have been historically quick to reject technology that is harder to use than they are used to. A comprehensive solution offering many features might create “feature shock” that alienates them. Instead, simplicity and easy navigation are essential to improve adoption and field user engagement;
  • Workflows that originate in the field such as photos, issues, daily reports, drawings are more likely to be used compared to contract or financial doc creation;
  • In construction sites, safety remains a top concern, and distractions caused by mobile apps can potentially expose the people in the field to hazards unnecessarily. The mobile solution for field-use needs to minimize time spent by field users in the app to complete the critical jobs-to-be-done and maximize efficiency;

How Can We Empathise with Customers?

  1. Observing in Customers’ Natural Environment

To gain empathy towards customers, we can observe them in their natural environment passively. For example, to design a field-focused construction mobile solution for field workers to use, we, as product designers, need to identify the personas working in the field who possess specific characteristics representing the targeted customers. We should spend time with them at the job sites, observing what a typical working day looks like and recording their activities instead of imagining in an air-conditioned office. While doing that, we must adopt a beginner’s mindset and leave our assumptions and experiences behind when making the observations. Since it is almost impossible to let go of our assumptions completely, we have to constantly and consciously remind ourselves never to judge what we observe, really listen to what customers are saying, and ask What, How, and Why:

  • What — we capture the details of what has happened and identify the behaviors;
  • How — we analyze how the targeted persona is doing what they are doing — are they exerting a lot of effort? How is the emotional reaction of the user? Are they smiling or frowning?
  • Why — we focus on figuring out the persona’s motivations and discover emotions that guide behaviors.

While we are making the observations, it is essential to ensure that we do not interfere or disturb the users with our presence so that they will not change their regular routines.

2. Bodystorming

Compared to passively observing the targeted customers, bodystorming is a more active way in Design Thinking to instill empathy for the users by immersing product creators fully in the users’ real-world environment. In the case of designing field-focused mobile solutions for managing construction projects, doing bodystorming requires us as product creators to immerse ourselves in the field as a superintendent, a construction foreman, an inspector, a construction manager, an estimator, an architect, a construction worker, et. al.. By immersing ourselves fully as the targeted personas in the real-world environment, we put ourselves in their shoes. Therefore, it boosts the empathy we need to develop the most fitting solutions for addressing the actual pain points. It also serves as the reference point for later in the product development process, enabling us to ask the right questions needed to create the desired customer value, “remember when we tried being the user? How would this product feature fit in with that? What are the pain points we experienced as a user, and how can we solve them?”

3. User Interview

User interview is another effective way for us to understand our customers and gain insights, but it has to be conducted with genuine empathy, good preparation, and thoughtfulness. Talking directly to the people we are designing for could provide us with the personal intimacy, directness, and unambiguity that sometimes passive observation and bodystorming might not offer. It also allows us to target specific areas of information for directing our Design Thinking process.

When we conduct the user interviews, we mustn’t disregard extreme users and only aim for the main bulk of users. Extreme users refer to users on the extreme ends of our targeted user spectrum, who usually have exaggerated needs. In the construction mobile software design context, we might begin to observe how the product is used by an extreme user who is an inspector working in a noisy construction site with all sorts of background noises and creating a punch list much faster than others. The typical voice-activated punch list design might assume a reasonable level of ambient noise. To serve the extreme user, we need to remove the ambient noise level assumption from the equation, allowing for more robust implementation within the design itself. The core value proposition of the voice-activated punch mobile app is to help all inspectors working in the field accurately create a punch list fast enough without typing on the mobile device, and designing for the extreme user enables that.

Designing a valuable product that matters to customers is not an easy task. The good news is that we have a wide range of methods at our disposal to empathize with our target customers and learn more about what they want from the product. With enough mindfulness and experience, we can become a master at empathizing with them and design a product that truly serves their needs.




Innovator, Team Builder

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Danjue Li

Danjue Li

Innovator, Team Builder

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