Sharing the Power to Care
How Empathy Summits help us bring cross-functional team members closer to research insights — and to the people who use our products.
Those of us who play user-facing roles — such as UX researchers, customer immersion managers, and product specialists — are often considered the owners of user-product relationships. Trained to use rigorous methodologies to identify user problems, sometimes we feel we alone have the power to find and share user insights.
But by finding ways to share that power with team members from other functions, we can help spread empathy through every part of a product team, leading to more — and more diverse — insights, more effective collaboration, and ultimately to more satisfying products.
A seat at the table
Empathy Summits are based on the idea that it’s one thing to share research insights across functions, and another to empower people in XFN roles to experience those insights for themselves. After all, the most powerful way to inspire people is to bring them along on the journey with you.
In an Empathy Summit, you invite 5 or 6 of your users to come in and give feedback, as you would in a focus group. But instead of moderating the session alone as your team watches from afar, you invite your team into the room, too.
Because an Empathy Summit isn’t designed to uncover new insights, it doesn’t require as much rigor as a typical focus group. From your research, you should already know users’ greatest pain points and the benefits of using your product. The idea is to enable your teammates to feel ownership of those insights by letting them hear directly from their users.
What an Empathy Summit looks like
For the past year, we’ve been running Empathy Summits in our Marketplace department. We invite the whole department, including teams that are not UI-facing, or that lack a user-facing XFN member. To encourage casual conversation, attendees are seated among the panel of users at shared tables.
We start by asking some wide-ranging questions about the product. After the group discussion, participants break out into 1:1 and small group sessions. This lets teammates chat directly with users to follow up on a comment, vet a new concept, brainstorm together, help a user find a buried feature that fixes their problem, and — most importantly — to build an empathetic rapport.
For more on how to run an Empathy Summit, check out our section on empathy panels in Medium Article: Remember Me, which also gives many more tips on how to communicate users’ stories to your team.
Translating insights across functions
We’ve been surprised and amazed at the effects our summits have had. After each summit, we encourage attendees to write up their own insights. Designers might quickly make up a mock and put the insights into their own language. Engineers write up findings related to what code hacks they could use. Product managers might talk about adjusting priorities. In other words, research findings are automatically translated into a host of XFN languages. This also encourages people in those roles to buy into research more fully in the future.
The summits also help facilitate collaboration between front-end and back-end teams by enabling all specific product teams to hear about the entirety of the user experience, and how the features of one specific product team actually integrates with the features of another team. Our department has many teams, but we don’t want our organization structure to be reflected in the product. This means that different teams are sometimes trying to solve the same problem without knowing it. When multiple teams talk to the same user and have the same insight, they can more easily get on the same page and build a single, collaborative solution.
Diversity in thought is another benefit of sharing your power through an Empathy Summit. Each team brings their own follow-up questions for the panelists, often providing perspectives the other teams hadn’t considered. This makes our collective insights deeper and our solutions stronger.
As a researcher, you probably think like a researcher. Designers approach insights in a completely different way, as do engineers, content strategists, product managers, marketers, and all other team members. By giving them the ability to focus on what matters to their role and what they need to know to make product impact, empathy summits can help all these roles move faster.
An appetite for insights
One of the most striking findings from our summits is that product teams that don’t have research or customer immersion manager often have a huge appetite to absorb customer insights, take action, and most importantly, take accountability to build customer-centric products.
Our engineering managers found the summit so impactful that he basically started doing much of the internal marketing efforts for us. It’s one thing for a researcher to tell engineers that they should attend, and another for “one of their own” to suggest they attend.
The summits also seem to whet non-research teams’ appetite for more user insights. For example, after one summit, we worked with an engineer to start up a dogfooding competition on their team, helping them get even closer to the experience of using the product. All of which led to more tasks being filed and product changes happening.
All these downstream effects are possible when you share your ownership of user experience insights.
Are Empathy Summits right for you?
Empathy Summits aren’t ideal for every organization or product. They may have the greatest impact in new orgs that are still refining their long-term vision and strategy — and that are more likely to have overlapping or understaffed product teams. It’s in such a climate that product teams can adapt and metabolize learnings the fastest.
Also note that our product, Marketplace, is an ecosystem of buyers, sellers, and businesses whose experiences on our platform are deeply intertwined. If you’re in an org or a department where your end users are drastically different from one another and not deeply intertwined, an Empathy Summit won’t be able to bring your XFNs together because they’ll be extremely focused mostly on their unique users. Also be mindful of timing, logistics, and bandwidth.
Lastly, you’ll want to form a small tiger team to pull off an Empathy Summit. Between all the strategizing, positioning, recruitment, internal advertisement, and moderation at the Summit, you’ll need a trusted ally who you want to bring along the journey with you. A strong ally will be your sounding board and confidant throughout the journey, and will help you run a successful Empathy Summit.
By following these tips and sharing your ownership of insights with your teams, your Empathy Summit can help unite your department around users. It’s impactful to share your ownership of insights by championing your XFNs to own their insights too.
Illustrator: Drew Bardana