Three Ways to Build Empathy when working in Health Tech

Building something for yourself is easy — you know exactly what you’d like. Building something for others is harder since you can’t assume what works for you will work for others. This is doubly true when the problem that you are trying to solve for others is way outside your own experience, such as when building technology solutions for health issues.

I suggested three ways for the whole Glooko team to build empathy for our users:

  • Experience it yourself
  • See for yourself
  • Listen to others

Last summer I joined Glooko as Head of User Research and Customer Insights. Glooko is an online diabetes management platform used by people with diabetes, doctors, and diabetes educators to collect data from devices like blood glucose meters and apps like Fitbit. Glooko brings together the data in order to help see patterns and make better decisions.

Some of the folks who work at Glooko have diabetes, and some don’t. Being among those who don’t, I decided to try our tools on myself to get some first-hand insight into what it’s like to measure blood glucose (BG) every day, and track food, exercise and “medication.” I hoped that it would give me a very small sense of what daily life is like for people with diabetes, as well as let me get acquainted with the Glooko app. Working with our Certified Diabetes Educator, we planned out how I would follow the journey of someone who was just diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. She went over what a clinician discusses with someone during their initial diagnosis and taught me how to measure my BG using a blood glucose meter. It took me four tries on get a reading on my first solo attempt, and here’s the evidence:

Four tries to get my first blood glucose reading

For two weeks I tracked my BG twice a day, food, and exercise in the Glooko app. I did it at home, in restaurants, and even when hiking with my dog on dusty trails that made my hands dirty when I needed to do a BG reading. After the two weeks, I shared a summary of my experience in a presentation to the whole company. Afterwards several employees asked me how they might try this for themselves too. I realized that there was a need among many of our employees to learn and to gain empathy for our users — people with diabetes.

Experience it yourself: “Trying Glooko” Program

As a direct result of my “two weeks with Glooko” experiment, we created the “Trying Glooko” Program. This program helps curious employees get a hands-on view of what it’s like for our users to measure their blood glucose, get onboarded with our system, and view their data in the Glooko mobile app. The program provides them with a getting started guide, a blood glucose measuring kit, and a list of mentors who can show them how to measure their blood glucose.

Since the program kicked off a few months ago, we’ve had about 10% of the company choose to participate and it’s introduced as part of onboarding for new employees. It’s helped us with a personal awareness of how much effort is involved in tracking, and particularly to see how much effort our users must expend before they can start to see patterns in their data.

See for yourself: Go into the field

In my role I conduct qualitative user researcher to understand the needs of our users, how they use our app now, and to look for opportunities of how we can make diabetes a little easier to manage through technology. One of the ways we do this is by going out into the field and visiting people in the context where they manage their diabetes — in their homes. Last fall we did a round of these ethnographic-style interviews to better understand the needs of people with Type 2 diabetes. I invited people from the product teams to come and observe, and serve as videographers and notetakers during the session. Product managers, engineers, UX designers, a technical writer, a clinical researcher, and a VP joined me on the visits.

One of the product managers, a 20-something healthy guy, couldn’t understand why people with diabetes didn’t do more to manage their condition, and asked to come along. During the analysis workshop, he shared that the visit radically changed his perception of what someone with Type 2 diabetes is like. He had been on a visit that turned out to be particularly emotionally difficult — our participant was homebound and suffered from many other health issues besides diabetes. By sitting in her home and listening to her story, he developed a deeper understanding of the struggle of managing a chronic condition, especially when one has to juggle managing other health concerns at the same time.

Listen to others: Life with Diabetes Storytelling

Since diabetes touches so many lives (30 million people in the US), there are a lot of personal stories that vividly portray what it’s like to live with diabetes. In our monthly “Life with Diabetes” Storytelling series, we invite 2 or 3 employees to share some stories. We encourage both those who have diabetes to tell us about their lives, and those who don’t — but perhaps have someone in their life who does — or even if they’ve read or watched one of the dozens blogs, videos or articles by people with diabetes, to share something.

We’ve heard stories about getting diagnosed with Type 1 as a child or as a college student. We’ve heard stories about what it’s like to be a mom supporting their child as they are diagnosed and learn to take care of themselves. We’ve heard stories of scary close calls that required a trip to hospital, and triumphs of being able to go back to all the active sports — just this time with an insulin pump. We’ve heard about how frustrating it can be for an adult child to watch an older parent managing Type 2 diabetes, and how to be a supportive friend to someone with Type 1. We’ve heard stories that made us laugh, that brought a tear to our eyes, and having a shared space to tell each other about our lives has brought us a little closer to one another.

This program is an opportunity for our colleagues to reflect on their own experiences, and to bring their whole self to work by sharing their challenges and triumphs; having a supportive audience to listen has been a boon for our speakers. Not everyone who has diabetes at Glooko chooses to speak, but everyone is invited to bring their own unique perspective to give us a glimpse into daily life with diabetes. Each person who shares a story is presented with a Rufus the bear (a cousin of JDRF’s Rufus, the Bear with Diabetes) — who usually ends up sitting on people’s desk as a badge of honor.

Life With Diabetes Storytellers are thanked by Rufus the Bear

Get creative

These are just three examples of ways to help your team build empathy and feel what it’s like for your users. Get creative in what aspects of your users’ life would be worthwhile for your team to walk a mile in your users’ shoes. For example, a user researcher who works at another diabetes company, 3D printed facsimiles of insulin pumps — with the same weight and form factor as typical insulin pumps, so that her team could experience what it’s like to have something strapped to your body all day long.

Go out and do something! You will create better products and your users will thank you for it.


Marianne Berkovich is the Head of User Research + Customer Insights at Glooko, and enjoys hiking with her dog on dusty and not so dusty trails.