My product management toolkit (23): customer empathy

A few weeks ago I attended the annual Mind the Product conference in San Francisco, where David Wascha delivered a great talk about some of his key lessons learned in his 20 years of product management experience. He impressed on the audience that as product managers we should “protect our customer”; as product managers we need to shield our teams, but ultimately we need to protect our customers and their needs.

Dave’s point really resonated with me and prompted me to think more about how product managers can best protect customers and their needs. I believe this begins with the need to fully understand your customers; “customer empathy” is something that comes to mind here:

  1. What’s customer empathy (1)? — In the dictionary, empathy is typically defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” In contrast, sympathy is about feeling bad for someone else because of something that has happened to him or her. When I think about empathising with customers, I think about truly understanding their needs or problems. To me, the ultimate example of customer empathy can be found in Change By Design, a great book by IDEO’s Tim Brown. In this book, Brown describes an IDEO employee who wanted to improve the experience of ER patients. The employee subsequently became an emergency room patient himself in order to experience first hand what it was like to be in an ER.
  2. What’s customer empathy (2)? — I love how UX designer Irene Au describes design as “empathy made tangible”. Irene distinguishes between between analytical thinking and empathic thinking. Irene refers to a piece by Anthony Jack of Case Western University in this regard. Anthony found that when people think analytically, they tend to not use those areas of the brain that allow us to understand other people’s experience. It’s great to use data to inform the design and build of your product, and any decisions you make in the process. The risk with both quantitative data (e.g. analytics and surveys) and qualitative data (e.g. user interviews and observations) is that you end up still being quite removed from what the customer actually feels or thinks. We want to make sure that we really understand customer pain points and the impact of these pain points on the customers’ day-to-day lives.
  3. What’s customer empathy (3)? — I recently came across a video by the Cleveland Clinic — a non-profit academic medical centre that specialises in clinical and hospital care — which embodies customer empathy in a very inspiring and effective way (see Fig. 1 below). The underlying premise of the video is all about looking through another person’s eyes, truly trying to understand what someone else is thinking or feeling.

Fig. 1 — Cleveland Clinic Empathy: The Human Connection to Patient Care — Wvj_q-o8&

I see customer empathy as a skill that can be learned. In previous pieces, I’ve looked at some of the tools and techniques you can use to develop customer empathy. This is a quick recap of three simple ways to get started:

Listen. Listen. Listen — I often find myself dying to say something, getting my two cents in. I’ve learned that this desire is the first thing that needs to go if you want to develop customer empathy. Earlier this year, I learned about the four components of active listening, from reading “The Art of Active Listening” . Empathy is one of the four components of active listening:

Empathy is about your ability to understand the speaker’s situation on an emotional level, based on your own view. Basing your understanding on your own view instead of on a sense of what should be felt, creates empathy instead of sympathy. Empathy can also be defined as your desire to feel the speaker’s emotions, regardless of your own experience.

Empathy Map — I’ve found empathy mapping to be a great way of capturing your insights into another person’s thoughts, feelings, perceptions, pain, gains and behaviours (see Fig. 2 below). In my experience, empathy maps tend to be most effective when they’ve been created collectively and validated with actual customers.

Fig. 2 — Example empathy map, by Harry Brignull — Taken from: “How To Run an Empathy Mapping & User Journey Workshop”

Problem Statements — To me, product management is all about — to quote Ash Maurya — “falling in love with the problem, not your solution.” Problem statements are an easy but very effective way to both capture and communicate your understanding of customer problems to solve. Here’s a quick snippet from an earlier ‘toolkit post’, dedicated to writing effective problem statements:

Standard formula:

Stakeholder (describe person using empathetic language) NEEDS A WAY TO Need (needs are verbs) BECAUSE Insight (describe what you’ve learned about the stakeholder and his need)

Some simple examples:

Richard,who loves to eat biscuits wants to find a way to eat at 5 biscuits a day without gaining weight as he’s currently struggling to keep his weight under control.

Sandra from The Frying Pan Co. who likes using our data platform wants to be able to see the sales figures of her business for the previous three years, so that she can do accurate stock planning for the coming year.

As you can see from the simple sample problem statements above, the idea is that you put yourself in the shoes of your (target) users and ask yourself “so what …!?” What’s the impact that we’re looking to make on a user’s life? Why?

Main learning point: Don’t despair if you feel that you haven’t got a sense of customer empathy yet. There are numerous ways to start developing customer empathy, and listening to customers is probably the best place to start!

Related links for further learning: