How a Culture of Empathy Drives Product Innovation

Nick dives into the ways empathy drives product innovation, the key parameters, and the need to create a culture of empathy for both users and colleagues.

Empathy at BlackRock

Our ‘One BlackRock’ culture has differentiated the firm since its founding. One BlackRock means “a culture of working collaboratively, without silos and without turf, to create the best outcomes for our clients, our firm and the communities where we operate.”

Since the Covid-19 crisis began, the focus on One BlackRock culture has become more important than ever. As BlackRock’s CEO Larry Fink and President, Rob Kapito reminded us in a recent company-wide memo “As we continue to be tested, let’s continue to be deliberate in extending kindness, support, and strength to one another — just as we have from the beginning.”

We could boil this sentiment down into a single word: Empathy — the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, seeing the world from their perspective. As well as being an enduring pillar of our BlackRock culture, empathy is also key to creating innovative products within the Aladdin Product Group, the group that builds our risk and investment technology, Aladdin.

How does empathy drive product innovation?

“The source of innovation comes from having a deep sense of empathy” — Satya Nadella CEO Microsoft

Empathy for users — First, we will consider the value of empathy towards Aladdin users. As a simple example, think of a product that you use every day, it could be your smart phone, your car, or your coffee machine. How do you feel about the product, what things do you like about it, what things do you find frustrating? For example, I love the camera on my smart phone, it means I can capture photos of my favorite moments. However, I don’t like the feeling of being interrupted that my smart phone creates, for example when walking in the forest it can be distracting to be notified of messages or emails.

So switching your view from a ‘product creator‘ to ‘product user’, what would you like the company that creates the phone to do? Would you like them to listen to users like yourself and understand how you feel about their product? Or would you like them to make assumptions about what is important or only focus on their own business needs?

User Research is a methodology for creating empathy for users of your product. It is the practice of observing users, understanding their needs, and communicating insights to the wider product development team. Whether it be through ethnographic research, measuring user sentiment through surveys, conducting usability testing in a lab, or analyzing quantitative usage data, the ultimate goal is to ensure products are created in a way that empathizes with people. Ensuring that the technology serves the human and not the other way around.

“Successful design requires a shift from seeing the machinery to seeing the lives of the people using it.” — Prof. Terry Winograd — Stanford University

Ethnographic research with Aladdin users enables product teams to empathize with their users.

Remember our One BlackRock principle, ‘working collaboratively, without silos and without turf’, so empathy towards our users isn’t the sole responsibility of the User Research team, all of us in the Aladdin Product Group can apply user empathy in our roles. For example, an engineer could write code in a way that enables usage data capture or a product manager could involve users in roadmap prioritization decisions. We can all seek user input in whichever way is appropriate for our role. Ultimately, as technologists, we are collectively responsible for creating products that are a joy to use and actively involving users in the product creation process helps to ensure happy clients.

Being empathetic to our users will help create innovative products. Image credit — Hannah Chung

The first item in Google’s founding principles is “Focus on the user and all else will follow”. Whether we are writing code, creating design specifications or product road maps we should always keep user empathy close to mind.

Empathy for our colleagues

So, users come first, but just focusing on user empathy will not get us all the way there. Building Aladdin is a team sport, and it takes a community with diverse skills, experiences, and knowledge to ensure the continued success of Aladdin. It is essential that we maintain empathy for our colleagues in the Aladdin Product Group, too.

Taking a step back, Aladdin is the industry leading investment management system, built by a community of 2,500 people distributed across the globe from Singapore to San Francisco, and many places in between. What an incredible challenge! To build a system as multi-faceted and powerful as Aladdin across such a diverse range of skills, cultures, and life experiences. To create successful innovation, we need empathy to enable communication, collaboration, and trust across our globally distributed teams.

“The day when one person conceived, developed, produced, and sold a designed object is largely gone… Design is a distributed social process, and, as such, communication plays a vital role.” — Tom Erickson Design Strategist IBM & Apple

Feasibility, Viability and Desirability — the key to empathy driven innovation

The below innovation model from the Hasso-Plattner-Institut of Design Thinking is a valuable framework for empathizing with our colleagues in the Aladdin Product Group. The model outlines technical feasibility, economic viability, and human desirability as the essential elements of innovation. You could think of it like the ‘fire triangle’ where oxygen, heat and fuel must all be present to create fire. Similarly, feasibility, viability and desirability must all be present to create innovation.

Innovation model from the Hasso-Plattner-Institut of Design Thinking

The innovation model helps us empathize with our colleagues, whether we are an engineer, a product manager, or a designer. The model shows that everyone’s unique skill set, and contribution, is required to achieve our ultimate goal of innovative product development.

As an engineer — the primary focus is technology. Is the product feasible? What is straight forward about the build? What is complex? I interviewed Gianluca Romeo, an engineering lead in the trading team here at Aladdin, to understand more.

Gianluca, as an engineer, how does empathy help you deliver innovation? — Success for me is creating an application that I am proud to show a friend or a colleague. As an engineer, product management help achieve this when they understand the needs of all the stakeholders, engineers, QA and the business. Also, it is helps us a lot when product management have a keen interest in technology, when they understand what is possible, we can do miracles! Finally, communication is key, the more communication between engineering and product management the more we can achieve.

When working with design, it really helps us to work with designers who use modern practices. Having a designer who is aware of the latest industry practices is of paramount importance. Also, I like to work with a designer with a taste for trends on look and feel of web applications.

Overall, as an engineer it helps me when colleagues understand what I do, what is easy and what is difficult. We can really innovate when we take the best parts of agile, breaking down walls between teams, bringing everyone together, having all the key stakeholders in the same room, ultimately communicating well so I am building what all my stakeholders are expecting.

As a product manager — the primary focus is business viability. How does the product fit in with the market? What are the most important features to get the product off the ground? I interviewed Lindsey Reese the manager of the APM Trading team to understand more.

Lindsey, as a product manager, how does empathy help you deliver innovation? — Building a great product involves a strong and collaborative partnership between product managers, designers, and engineers. We rely on the expertise of each of our roles in the creation of our product to understand the vision, our users, and have shared accountability in the outcome of our strategy.

As a product manager, I look to our engineers to help our product team understand the technical feasibility of our strategy. A strong partnership between a product manager and engineer ensures that the PM is articulating the market problem we are looking to solve, and the engineer is conveying potential complexities around delivery of a strategy.

We rely on our design team to affirm that our product will solve the market problem we set out to address. Through design sprints with the product team, we lean on the expertise of user researchers and designers to validate that our proposed products meet the expectations of our user and their workflows. Strong design engagement allows us to pick up on the subtleties and nuances that may have been missed in the initial user stories and requirements.

As a designer — the primary focus is on human factors and desirability. Will people understand how to use the product? Will it meet their needs? I interviewed Sarah Balta the design lead for Aladdin Accounting to understand more.

Sarah, as a design lead, how does empathy help you deliver innovation? — Being open is key to having a successful trifecta between engineering, product, and design. We each bring our subject matter expertise to the table, but when collaborating, we shouldn’t be limited to those areas of expertise. Our starting point is always user empathy, understanding user motivations, needs and what they are currently not getting from the system. Then we can discuss technical constraints and brainstorm solutions together. Overall having open communication is key, that is what sparks creativity.

Product management help design by having a respect for the craft of design and giving time and space for the right design solution to emerge. Secondly, a great product manager is like a bridge, connecting gaps between users, business and technology and communicating the wider context to the team. Finally, a great product manager is reliable, even when they are busy and getting pulled in different directions, they still provide access to users or provide feedback on design. Working with a product manager who is reliable has really helped us build momentum in the accounting space.

Engineers set the team up for success by being detail orientated. Part of what makes an experience delightful is attention to detail, a great engineer will pay attention to the details of the user experience. Secondly, it helps to work with an engineer who can articulate technical constraints, being able to explain issues in a way that non-technical people can understand. Finally, creativity, at Aladdin we have very creative, very innovative engineers and we can build better products when engineers contribute ideas too!

Thanks to Gianluca, Lindsey and Sarah for those great insights!

To summarize, we all have unique passions that drives us when we start work each morning. Within the Aladdin Product Group, we have people who are passionate about such diverse topics as database optimization to typography. The feasibility, viability and desirability model can enable us to serve our own passion whilst also being mindful and receptive to the passions of our colleagues.

A culture of empathy for both users and colleagues

“Design thinking is regarded as a system of three overlapping spaces — viability, desirability, and feasibility — where innovation increases when all three perspectives are addressed.” — Chasanidou et al 2015

To create innovative products, we must be empathetic to both our users and our colleagues. Image credit — Hannah Chung

Just as to create fire, we need oxygen, heat, and fuel, to create innovative products, we need to ensure feasibility, viability, and desirability. To keep the fire of innovation burning we can nurture our culture of empathy at BlackRock, to put ourselves in the shoes of our users and our colleagues. The more empathetic we can be, the more innovation we can create.

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BlackRockEngineering

Official BlackRock Engineering Blog. From the designers & developers of industry-leading platform Aladdin®. Important disclosures: http://bit.ly/17XHCyc