Empathy in Product Design

Not long ago I read an article by a gentleman with several decades of coding experience on Medium and I wish I would have bookmarked it.

The article attempted to distill many of the most important things he had learned about longevity as a developer. One statement in particular stayed in my head and has surfaced often.

The writer stated that as a developer, you are essentially a high-priced factory worker. This was not stated in any kind of derogatory fashion, but did recognize that most businesses would prefer to outsource this factory work to the cheapest options available.

The gulf between being that high-priced factory worker and a true entrepreneur is enormous. The space between is called “customer development”. It requires shifting focus from improving technical skills and efficiency to developing empathy for people. That gets messy.

I can illustrate. Right now, go to google and enter in “make an online store”. I guarantee your entire first three page results will fill up with tools you can use for everything from your web design to e-commerce. What you won’t find is anything telling you what you should sell, and to whom. Why? Because this is much harder to determine than the mechanics of doing online sales. It’s complex, and it involves people more than code.

Personally I’ve seen many examples of developers or designers seeking to cross over into entrepreneurship while still acting in their comfort zone of technical skills. It doesn’t work.

While I’m pondering I have to ask: is a freelancer an entrepreneur? If a person performs a service but has no products nor any intellectual property are they actually in business? Or are they doing the same thing as the person in a full-time employment situation — but for several companies? Don’t misunderstand me, a top freelancer is awesome. I’m just not convinced there is a lot to be learned about entrepreneurship from them. A great freelancer makes about the same as an employee. Sure, they get to work from bed in their pyjamas, but the employee enjoys chatting at the water cooler. There are good and bad things either way and both are defined by the inescapable fact that somebody else owns the product. Someone else funds them from a core model they own.

Extending that idea from the freelancer, is a group of developers who all perform services together but have no properties generating continuing revenue really in business? Or is that group collectively a freelancer, “bidding” and “pitching” rather than “applying” and “interviewing” but with the same end-result as an employee?

Have they actually gotten out of the factory?

It is entirely possible to generate profit, to have employees, yet never truly own anything. It happens when an organization focuses on technical skills over empathy for people’s real needs. It is hard to go through the pain required to own the product when you don’t particularly care about the people using it.

There is no idea, born in the head of any technical genius, that can not fail without empathy. There is nothing so brilliant that the idea itself guarantees success.

Consider an actual factory worker who tries to go into business for themselves. Would they succeed if they kept making widgets, but rather than doing it at the factory they used to work in they did it at home and nothing else? Not likely. It is more likely they would get contracts and sell their widgets to factories like the one they had left. Why? Because this scenario is what they know and understand. They empathize with widget-makers.

It is a far different scenario for that factory worker to grasp that their widgets are used in making doofers that actual people buy to do X, than come up with a better doofer that can disrupt the market. To do it, they’d need to really understand those end users. That means getting out of the comfortable zone of their technical skills and going out into the world to gain insight. This is scary and full of unknowns. It requires the ability to act despite zero knowledge. It requires faith in the future, and intense curiosity about human behavior.

Faced with the unknown, most will resort to the familiar and seek better ways to make widgets for factories. They add on people, make profit, and fend off other widget-makers. They may sell/lease their widget process to other widget-makers for a nice pile. But all of it relies on the person who made the doofer. Their fates are entwined.

Again, making that leap across the chasm is called customer development — a process by which you come to realize everything you know is wrong and your expertise means nothing. It involves wiping the slate, forming a hypothesis, then testing that hypothesis and using the result to make the next guess. Over and over it repeats, a “search” for understanding of what people actually want/need that is sped up by only one thing — empathy.

So how do you get better at empathy?

A lot has been written about customer development and much of it is worth reading, with a filter in place. Many of the authorities on customer development approach it with a strong bias towards VC funding. As such it is far too easy to come to a point that funding itself becomes the goal. Understanding investors and pitching them takes the place of customer empathy, and entrepreneurs go in with the purpose of gaining funding, then performing an exit. It takes a certain personality type to perform that strategy well. If that personality type isn’t yours, know that entrepreneurs have been succeeding outside of such methods just fine for quite a while. If you go into something without immediately pondering how you’ll get out of it, don’t worry — you are completely normal. Wanting to build something that lasts is okay.

One way to place the emphasis on empathy is to ask how fundamental your product/idea is to the human condition. At their core, people have relatively simple needs involving clean air, water, basic nutrients. Next up they need shelter. After that they need to deal with the unexpected using tools for locomotion, communication, and medicine. Ask how close your idea is to these fundamental needs.

It is okay if your product or idea takes a winding path to addressing these fundamental needs but you should be able to identify that path. By doing so, you’ll improve the design of your thing, and improve your ability to form empathy with the people you’re making it for. This leads to improvements in your search for a viable business.

None of this is written to suggest that technical skills are secondary. Those skills have an even footing with empathy. Best intentions and insight mean nothing without the people who can build and create things from their years of experience. It is a balancing act, that has traditionally been met by staffing up with people for each side of the equation, then adding more people to help maintain that balance. But that gets cumbersome.

Today, agility and rapid iteration times call for each member of the team being balanced. Every person develops both empathy AND technical skill.

It isn’t as easy as it sounds to do this. Take people who have strongly depended on their technical ability for security and tell them they need to spend half their time knowing and relating to people who may or may not become customers. It is scary. They’ll have a strong urge to reject this waste of time. They have to be taught that this is anything but a waste, that it is essential to making products with empathy. And they will need to know why empathy is important.

As an organization grows, it becomes harder and harder to instill empathy in everyone. Inevitably there will be people present that are there for for a core skill set who aren’t particularly attuned to the people using the product. They’ll have empathy for their co-workers, and sometimes for the leadership. But the time for these people to enter the organization is as late as possible. Why? Because these people do not set a direction for the business, but they will vastly accelerate it in whatever direction it is already pointed. Free of the ‘slowness’ caused by approaching problems with empathy for the user they can get results very fast. They execute. Their considerations are all technical.

If the organization is not rooted incredibly strongly in empathy for the customer, execution people will accelerate the product development completely away from those users. The organization will “succeed itself to death” rapidly delivering on technically well-made features that actually alienate the customer. The plethora of “smart ideas”, created by people bereft of true understanding of the users, begins to water down the focus of the product until users have a hard time understanding if the product is still for them.

Creating empathy in an organization is impossible. But cultivating it is both possible and incredibly important. There is a difference. The word “cultivating” implies that there is the germ of empathy among people to begin with, and with encouragement and leadership it can grow and produce a harvest. I know what I’m talking about.

For a decade my company understood our customer very well — it was Art Directors, Creative Directors, Account Managers and Project Managers at agencies. We succeeded quickly because the core team understood what makes the day better for people in those positions and could easily empathize. They were quickly joined by execution people who accelerated us rapidly to one of the top vendors in our field.

The problem is this — we didn’t aspire to be a vendor for agencies. That was never the goal. We wanted to build products for consumers. But this powerfully illustrates the power of empathy. We didn’t have it for a faceless group of consumers, but we had it in abundance for people in the agency world. With monumental effort we could have developed empathy for a group of consumers, but that opportunity disappeared the moment we added on our first “executioner” — someone intent on accelerating us in the direction our empathy already pointed us, rather than assisting in creating empathy for a new group.

Now, ten years later with a much smaller group we are finally back to the awkward steps required to develop that empathy. We’re a little older, hopefully a little wiser. Even so, coming to this empathy for a new group has only come through some pretty blunt trials, such as passing a rule that nobody gets to develop the software without putting in time with our users every week. Nobody just builds something without using it and seeing the direct result on the people relying on our product. We lost somebody from the team because of that rule, a costly thing for a small group. They wanted the technical challenge but not the human challenge.

The last observation I will make is this — some people think they are purely execution people simply because they have never been put in a situation to develop expertise in empathy. A shocking number of organizations simply don’t truly recognize the value of empathy so people learn that execution is everything. As a result more than 90% of startups fail, a ridiculous record. Those same people, placed in a group that recognizes and rewards efforts in empathy may find that they are surprisingly good at it. But expect a period of conflict while they gradually come to accept that their skills-development is creating a dependence in them. Having discovered their ability to empathize, they may have a hard time in the future working in a place where they don’t get to use that ability. It complicates things, so don’t expect people to embrace it overnight. This is why empathy must be cultivated, slowly, over time with care and patience.

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