Empathy Distance

Markiyan Matsekh
Oct 26, 2018 · 3 min read

After talking with fellow product managers about their products and customers I’ve noticed that it takes more time and effort to relate to some products than the others. And it’s not binary, there’s definitely a range.

Obviously, there’s domain and industry knowledge, but I figured there’s a better indicator of how much I care for a specific product, which I call empathy distance. It’s basically the number of steps you have to dig through while scanning your personal preferences, past experiences, friends, observations, interviews, etc before you can relate to the end user and their problems, i.e. before you can develop empathy for them.

Here are a couple of steps I’ve experienced myself (each step increases empathy distance):

  1. I use this product
  2. I have the problem the product solves but haven’t used this specific product
  3. I used to have this problem and know what it feels like, but don’t experience it now
  4. My friend/colleague constantly tells me about this problem she’s having and I understand it well
  5. I know some people whom I could imagine having this problem
  6. I never heard about this problem but after reading through customer feedback I can relate to it
  7. I never heard about this problem but after talking with a few customers personally, I can relate to it
  8. I never heard about this problem and after talking with a few customers I understand the problem but am not passionate about it
  9. I can’t really understand the problem nor relate to it.

I believe you can develop empathy for anyone, but why work on a product where you have to try so hard to understand the customers, to care? The world is so big and life is so short — why not work on something that you already care for, or are close to?

I believe that empathy distance can be valuable in at least three cases:

  1. You’re a startup founder or a product manager of a growing product, and you need to choose which customer segment to tackle next or which feature to build next. Obviously, you make a tradeoff between multiple parameters, like market size, CAC, LTV, product development cost, and many more. But add one more parameter to that equation: your (or relevant PMs) empathy distance. It might not be the biggest factor, but do not neglect it completely — it might result in a much more lively product and passionate team. I did this with Senstone when we had too many customer segments to address and focused on the ones myself and the team felt closer to, and I’m happy with the choice. While you can build empathy in a certain period of time it’s much harder to build up passion, especially if you as a PM need to spread to your team.
  2. You’re a PM looking for new opportunities. Sort your job applications and interviews by empathy distance: start with the products you already use, continue with the ones you’re curious about, keep an open mind on the ones you haven’t heard of, and probably decline those you know you don’t care about.
  3. You’re a hiring PM or a Head of Product looking to fill in the new role, either by hiring or promoting someone. You could use empathy distance to better understand if the person is a good fit for this product, and then combine it with your regular criteria like professional skills, culture etc.

Obviously, the world is not perfect and you what you personally love doesn’t always reflect what’s best for the business. What I’m saying is that it might be useful to take this one more structured factor into account, and it might bring better results.

I would love to hear your opinion — do you agree that personal preferences should affect product roadmap? Would you add more steps to the empathy distance? Comments and responses are welcome!

Markiyan Matsekh

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Tales about product management and entrepreneurship. From co-founder/CPO of http://senstone.io, now Sr. Product Manager at Vimeo