A framework for empathetic product management

Samyukta Sankaran
Feb 12, 2018 · 6 min read

Empathy for Engineers

Empathetic Product Management

It’s 6:30 PM on a Friday, and I’m on the phone with a customer — let’s call him Mr. Green — discussing the certification features he’s trying out. He’s currently a bit stuck, a bit dissatisfied. I’m aware that our conversation is quite technical — things that our respective computer science backgrounds have prepared us to talk about.

Although, something else dawns on me — the emotional energy being expended on the other end of the phone. He wouldn’t have called late on a Friday with an urgency in his voice if this thing weren’t holding him back from starting his weekend.

As someone with a rigorous background in computer science and product management, I think of myself as analytical, perhaps to a fault. But recently, I’ve come to understand that — in addition to the analytical and technical experience I bring to my product management work — empathy is a crucial component to my product’s success, and to the success of my customers.

We need better ways of thinking about — and applying — empathy, regardless of our discipline.

Why empathy is important

Let’s take a look at some elements of that conversation with Mr. Green that Friday evening. He says some things:

  • “You don’t understand! You weren’t there.”

He’s right. As the PM of a B2B product, I am used to hearing about it being used in very different, flexible ways. After all, it’s built to be configurable. But — perhaps Mr. Green is saying something else, too — that the product did not help him feel good, did not help him look good within his company. As a product manager, one of my goals is grant my users superpowers. And Mr. Green wasn’t feeling too heroic right about now. This was my cue to listen more closely for ways to elevate his work, influence and impact.

  • “I don’t know what I want.”

Most commonly, a customer shares one (or a small number) of specific pain points. They don’t offer solutions — and if they do — the solutions are localized to their particular pain points.

Have enough of these conversations, and you will inevitably uncover themes for broader growth.

The value of such themes? They are pre-vetted, don’t need further discovery or justification. You already know they will tremendously help your existing and — very likely — your new customers.

  • “Eh, it’s alright, I guess.”

By 7: 00 PM, Mr. Green and I had talked each other off the cliff. He understood how to leverage the current workflow for his business, how to make it work.

But he wasn’t particularly happy about it.

Why is that important? Because the best products are delightful, not just functional. There are many theories as to what ensures stickiness, aka keep your customers coming back — integrate into their ecosystem, build a moat around them etc. I’d argue the funnest theory is — make them want to. Mr. Green’s comment was a sharp reminder of this point, and that there was more work to be done on the certification feature.

Why empathy is hard. (For some of us.)

(Personal Tangent — I am an engineer by training. If you are familiar with the MBTI scale — I am an INTJ. If you think the Zodiac signs hold valuable clues to personality — I am a Scorpio. If you relate to any of these characterizations, and are unsure of the applicability of empathy to your personality style — this one’s for you.)

  • We think of empathy as a moral value. (When, in fact, it’s a muscle.)

Empathy is often considered a moral value — and a perceived lack of it, a moral defect. Either you have it, or you don’t. I find it more useful to think of it as a muscle, that — professionally, anyway — can be created and strengthened with focus and repetition. In a PM role, this muscle becomes vitally important in discovering how to get, make, and keep customers delighted with the experience of using your product.

  • We are all different

There are many reasons we perceive things differently than others. Bias in research, communication styles, learning preferences (visual vs, verbal) — etc. This is perhaps why we easily understand someone “speaking our language”, and tend to dismiss others. After all, as PMs we also need to use judgement, right? We can’t build it all!

  • Data isn’t enough

Data is very useful to uncover insights about users’ current behavior.. However, it’s less useful at telling us what users would do, if they had a new superpower. Data is one facet of insight — others could be: What will take your users to the next level? What’s right for your company’s values? What do the finances say? Remember that data is but one perspective; consider others.

A working definition

In the context of Product Management: Empathy is the drive to understand what a customer really wants, and unpack that understanding into what they really need. With an additional aspiration to delight.

A practical framework

Read on for practical tips that a product manager, their teams, and their organization can leverage, to strengthen the empathy muscle.

As a Product Manager, try:

  • Active Listening

Work to hear what’s not being explicitly being said. If you are a verbal and literal person, this is a bit more work, but very worthwhile. On Friday evening, Mr. Green offered up multiple clues into what would help him be more successful. I just had to very keenly listen to him.

  • Empathy Exercises

I’ve found it useful to run through PM interview exercises. Even if you aren’t looking for a new opportunity, check out “PM interview articles” that suggest exercises on developing design empathy. Particularly valuable are exercises that don’t have anything to do with your professional life:

How would you build an elevator for blind people? How would you improve your space heater?

  • Putting market-fit first

The ideas expressed here are technology / tool agnostic. What that means is — you have to be willing to be flexible about the underlying technology, in service of user needs and market fit. Even Facebook rethinks its strategy more frequently than you may realize.

As a Product Team, try:

  • Prototyping

Remember Mr. Green? He wasn’t quite happy with what he had, but didn’t quite know what he wanted. That’s ok, and that’s where prototyping comes into the picture. When you have found those broader themes, create a prototype, and check in with him. Prototypes gives qualified users something to react to, and gives you valuable feedback. Here’s one way to to that, from Intuit.

  • Immersion & Personas

Set up opportunities to, quite literally, watch people using your product. Transcribe that experience, and create personas based on it. (“Tim is a busy senior executive with two children, and wants to expand his impact and influence.” ) Spend time getting to know Tim — allowing for accurate inferential and intuitive leaps to what he wants. Share this experience, transcription, and persona with your internal teams, helping them increase their empathetic understanding. There’s no substitute for a first-hand / fresh-eyed experience; however, a secondary experience, when immersive, comes close. Here’s a case study of one way to do that, from HBR.

  • Empathy Mapping Workshop

When creating a new feature, consider running a Empathy Map workshop. This is a self-contained way to validate assumptions of success. In a way, it’s a summation of all the concepts in this article: gathering qualified users, creating self-organizing personas, designing a user journey, getting early feedback — it all comes together here.

Here’s a template to do just that. This does not replace your work of designing the new feature; however it dramatically supports it, and boosts the chances of a great market-fit.

As a Product Organization, try:

  • Setting empathy KPIs

Consider introducing Key Performance Indicator (KPI) targets that specifically motivate and incentivize growth of empathetic processes, features, functions, and products.

And — as for Mr. Green?

While he did not immediately get what he wanted (and who does?), he remains a loyal customer and an engaged advocate. Knowing that we heard & understood his business needs (and his own) — had gone a long way.

Good deal for a Friday evening.

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