Why Empathy Matters
Possibly the most profound challenge in product management is to understand the needs of users and customers. Without developing the right understanding, our chances of creating a successful product are slim.
While there are numerous techniques available to uncover user needs—think of direct observation, problem interviews, focus groups, surveys, and MVPs, to name just a few—none of them is truly useful, if we do not empathise with the people that will use our product, if we do not get in touch with their feelings and thoughts.
Otherwise, we run the risk of pushing out feature after feature, MVP after MVP, without ever knowing why some features or products stick and others don’t. In the worst case, we build digital products that are harmful and encourage addictive behaviour, as we don’t see the humans behind the analytics data and financial numbers.
Empathy in a Nutshell
Empathy is our capacity to relate to each other on a very fundamental level: to understand other people’s feelings and thoughts, and to take the perspective of the other person. Say a friend tells you how sad she is after splitting up with her partner. Your natural reaction will be to feel sad with her, to mirror her feelings. Or another friend shares with you how happy he is, as he’s found a new job. You are then bound to feel happy for and with him. The best explanation of empathy I have found, believe it or not, is the one below.
While it is our nature to empathise, there are some conditions that increase our ability to be empathetic, while others decrease it. The following tips want to help you empathise with users and develop a deeper understanding of their needs.
Empathy Tip 1: Meet users face to face
Meeting real users on a regular basis should be part of every product manager’s and product owner’s job. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. As product people, we are sometimes shielded from the users by management, sales, or support.
But without meeting the beneficiaries of your product, you cannot truly understand their feelings and thoughts. In the worst case, you create an empathy map or persona based on hearsay and half-knowledge, but not on personal experience and insight—which is a common mistake in my experience. And while it’s great to have analytics and quantitative data available, I for my part find it impossible to empathise with numbers.
Therefore, make sure that you meet users face to face and preferably in person, at least once every three months. While a video call call might work, I wouldn’t recommend it if you haven’t met the individual before, as it’s harder to empathise with the person if you are not in the same room.
Empathy Tip 2: Take a genuine interest in the person
Understanding another person requires a friendly, kind, and open attitude. Be respectfully curious about the individual’s thoughts and feelings, no matter if you find the person likeable or not. Now, that’s easier said than done for me, as I can be critical about others and myself. But I know that having the courage to openly engage with a “difficult person“—someone I find challenging to relate to—helps me see the individual for what she or he is: a fellow human being with hopes and dreams, worries and fears just like me.
Additionally, appreciate the opportunity to meet users, and be careful not to view the meeting as a tick-box exercise, as this might instrumentalise the other person: You might be more interested in collecting the right information as quickly and efficiently as possible rather than engaging with the individual. But such an approach significantly reduces your ability to empathise and consequently collect the missing information.
At the same time, be kind to yourself. Recognise that being worried, stressed, tense, tired, or restless will make it harder to be empathetic. If you are not reasonably content and settled in yourself, then it’s hard to reach out and connect with others, as you are likely to be caught up in your own thoughts and concerns.
Empathy Tip 3: Have an open mind and stay present
Most of us are so used to evaluating, analysing, and judging other people’s views, emotions, looks, attitudes, and behaviour that we are hardly aware of it. Unfortunately, a judgemental, critical mind is an empathy barrier. Let’s look at an example.
John, one of the users you are meeting, tells you that the latest update is rubbish. But your data suggests that the majority of users think the opposite. It’s easy then to become defensive and label John’s view as an outlier. While this might be correct, it is a judgement. Thinking that the person’s opinion is non-representative or wrong is likely to prevent you from understanding John’s reason for preferring the old product version and possibly enhancing the latest one.
Alternatively, you might find that John’s feedback triggers a thought process. Your mind wanders and you evaluate how you could fix the issue. You might start identifying improvements for the product, possibly even redesign the user experience, while you are still sat in front of John.
If your mind is critical or not focused on the present, then you lose some of the connection with the other person; you are likely to empathise and understand less. What helps me is being mindful, paying attention to what’s happening inside me, how I respond to what I see and hear, and catch myself before I get lost in my own thoughts and feelings.
Empathy Tip 4: Ask clarifying questions to deepen your understanding
John’s feedback clearly tells us that he does not like the latest product update. But why is that? Why is he unhappy with the product? To deepen your understanding, ask open, clarifying questions.
For example, you might want to say to John: “It seems to me that you are disappointed with the latest update. Can you please share why that is?” This should move on the conversation to uncovering the reason for John’s negative feedback, which is likely to be an unmet need. This in turn may lead to the opportunity to innovate.
Give John the necessary time to answer your question. Tolerate silence and don’t jump in with suggestions (“it’s probably because you wanted …”). Allow yourself to be patient; developing empathy takes time.
Empathy Tip 5: Eat your own dog food
Using your own product will also help you empathise with the users, albeit in an indirect way: You are likely to experience the shortcomings virtually every product has, which allows you to better understand the negative feelings and actions that the product might trigger like users becoming impatient or frustrated, and not completing a user journey or possibly stopping to use the product.
While you may want to ensure that your product does a great job for all its users, be aware that you cannot please everyone. Empathy, therefore, may also mean saying no in a kind way so that your product continues to have a clear value proposition and addresses a specific problem for a particular group of people.
You can learn more about developing empathy with the following: