A Product Manager’s Guide to Empathetic Problem Solving

A framework for building a product culture with both user empathy and compassion

Suketu Patel
Published in
18 min readJun 21, 2019


Make People Feel Loved Today, written on a wall

Why is User Empathy Important?

User empathy is a buzzword that’s frequently used by startups and entrepreneurs. You’ll see it in job descriptions and product blogs. It’s historically been emphasized in advertising, marketing, and user experience. It’s embraced in product management schools, startup incubators, user research, design thinking, and start-up books.

As a skill, user empathy and emotional intelligence are intimately related. Applying them for team collaboration and problem-solving is invaluable to scale any product or business. If your goal is to create products that users love, then the most sustainable path for accomplishing this would require uncanny wisdom about your customers. Having a holistic knowledge of your users powers the strategy for initially acquiring them, as well as continuing to retain them.

But in order to acquire them, you will need insights to differentiate and identify them. Most product managers and designers gather these insights through user research, interviews, data analysis, and user testing. While the completion of these tasks doesn’t guarantee an outcome, the hope is that these activities create a culture of building products with user empathy as a priority.

The problem for many product teams and startups is that these activities don’t always result in a thoroughly diversified or pragmatic understanding of your users. A common barrier, especially for early-stage start-ups is minimal access to data and users for feedback. On top of that, resources for comprehensive user testing are often constrained by time and budget. There are solutions that can help, but a comprehensive understanding of the problems your market is facing is one way to find potential users to overcome this barrier.

User empathy is especially necessary when there is a founding mission that stresses positive impact and social good. How do founders and product leaders spread these compassionate values so they are embraced by their teams and organization? Research shows that millennials are actively seeking meaningful work, and companies with social impact visions can create a company culture that advocates purpose.

Besides employee satisfaction, meaningful work has shown to motivate workplace engagement and promote employee retention. While the importance and downstream effects of an empathetic culture are plentiful, initializing and maintaining requires deliberate efforts. People have a profound ability to spot fake empathy, committing to a culture of genuine empathy requires activities that decipher the problems they face, and a vision that empowers your team to solve them.

This framework serves as an exercise in empathy, equipping people with the tools to cultivate and evolve the skill through habitual mentalizing. When we have mental models and cognitive habits that aid in digesting and utilizing behavioral research we are able to empower ourselves to make informed decisions. Often times, abstracting human experience fuels disconnect and can lead to a de-humanizing approach that inhibits compassionate decisions. My aim is to upend this outcome and instead advance a pragmatic abstraction of empathy.

Let’s start with a working definition of empathy.

Empathy is a biological capacity that has a deep evolutionary origin, it’s the act of taking another individual's perspective, and then simulating the affective value of their experiences. It’s a capability that is innate and is often a sub-conscious realization for familiar scenarios. When we abstain from intervening in our own emotional judgment, we are able to show a much more symbiotic understanding of individuals' situations. It usually is much more effortless to be empathetic when we can share emotions with another person through a familiar or common scenario. Depending on our experiences, those familiar scenarios will increasingly become infrequent as we interact with a diverse population that challenges our identity.

The evolution of this cognitive capacity has resulted in all the benevolent actions and altruistic behaviors that promote cooperation, trust, and reciprocity throughout history. These are all qualities that great teams strive towards attaining. It’s not surprising that people with high emotional intelligence quotients are known for possessing these same qualities as well.

Because empathy as a capability is primarily an innate skill, it often fails to be refined or reinforced, resulting in a tremendous blind spot for decision making. When the experience or scenario is something we are unfamiliar with or when we are far removed from any reliable exposure, then taking another’s perspective becomes unintuitive, resulting in a mendable state of ignorance.

As a skill or professional capability, it’s essentially a thinking process with roots in open-mindedness and removing cognitive biases. By creating a mental model that simulates an individual’s emotions, empathy provides the meaning and intrinsic value behind any experience. In the technology and SaaS context, we want to survey these values and treat them as insights, allowing us to utilize them to solve our users’ problems and ultimately have a positive impact on their lives.

Compassion is often interchangeably used with empathy when in actuality, it is one aspect of it. Researchers from psychology and neuroscience have differentiated them by defining empathy as two types, emotional (affective) empathy, and cognitive (rational) empathy. Emotional empathy can be described as the instinctual response that triggers in us similar feelings, distress for their situation, or compassion for their situation. Excessive emotional empathy without an outlet can be detrimental to one’s health. Individuals that are susceptible to over-internalizing the emotions of others often experience distress.

The positive effect of emotional empathy is compassion, it fuels our decision making so our actions can mindfully solve problems. Rational empathy, on the other hand, essentially provides context, it refers to understanding another’s beliefs, values, and knowledge. This additional context is often gathered through user research, interviews, surveys, and biometric devices.

Our goals are to become compassionate product managers, mindful creators, and empathetic professionals. And we are seeking empathy in order to be impactful with our actions and make altruistic decisions. At some point in our careers, many of us will feel distressed with a company’s culture when we are empathetic to our users yet lack a compassionate workplace. These situations create a sense of dread and despair, that usually leads to career changes or passion projects.

What does User Empathy Provide Your Product?

By providing the channel for understanding the ramifications on users, empathy also provides foresight into predicting the long term value from executing your vision and roadmap. In the short term, user empathy provides the practical and functional value of your minimum viable product (MVP).

Even with an established company mission or product vision, the product team can be much more effective and creatively collaborative when they have a robust understanding of the impact of their efforts. Having a conceptual grasp of the effects on users is even more crucial when developing and releasing products that can easily introduce cognitive biases. Truly collaborative teams are consumed with the value they are providing their users. This not only extends to the design and development team but in order to successfully fulfill their roles, sales, and product marketing needs to understand the value their products provide.

Why is Empathy Important?

Since the mass adoption of mobile devices with substantial computing power, it’s become even easier for problem solvers to release products that disrupt existing industries and ultimately the lives of its users and communities. In most traditional product management frameworks, the users are aiding the process of finding a product-market fit with their feedback and usage patterns.

While it is a highly effective methodology, it still doesn’t provide a complete picture and lacks metrics on the human experiential value. This is very evident to the many founders and product managers that are pro-actively looking to be accountable for their products, and continue to realize their personal and professional missions for creating benevolent and impactful products.

Entrepreneurs and consumers are rightfully worrying about the societal effects of their products. But mitigating unintended effects is impossible without some capability for foresight.

Why is it difficult to foresee the long term value of a product?

We essentially make these mistakes both conceptually during ideation and design because there isn’t an objective framework to employ. The outcome of decisions with empathy blindness can result in unintended deviations from your core mission.

My experiences building healthcare products, research in cognitive science, and personal mission have motivated me to examine and refine my own emotional intelligence. This capacity refined my ability to gather insights from the empathetic relationship I have with my users.

My hope is that this primer can provide a framework for leaders to stay on track towards accomplishing their mission and help product managers impart an empathetic problem-solving culture with their teams. As gatekeepers, product managers have a duty to be transparent with their team, by communicating the value of the product and the effects they have on society.

Framework for Empathetic Problem Solving

Empathy’s Role in Sustainable Product Development

The objective of nearly every product-driven organization involves initially launching and continuously innovating to retain, as well as scale their user base.

This type of product success is summed up by two well-known principles, which are also at the core of every prolific product culture.

  1. User empathy, also known as empathy for the customer’s pain-points.
  2. Falling in love with the problem and not the solution.

If product management was a formal science and had axioms, most product leaders would agree to these two principles. At a glance, the responsibilities of most product managers are to launch an MVP, find a product-market fit, scale the user or customer base, and continually release upgrades to retain users.

Every product department job requisite will have some combination of these responsibilities. In fact, they are so interwoven that the PM’s role can be summarized in a concise problem statement.

Entrepreneur who have a product idea, find that executing their vision has hit roadblocks in their path to sustainability.

Sustainability can have many definitions depending on the product’s industry, the company mission, and market conditions.

Sustainably could mean:

  1. Perpetuating a status as the market leader
  2. Maintaining the growth rate
  3. Pivoting to correct a failure
  4. Navigating the technology adoption cycle
  5. Managing the impact on society

All the items on this sustainability list require an intricate knowledge of your user’s needs, desires, and limitations.

How do we Empathize With the User’s Pain-Points

Customer empathy not only means simulating the experiences from the user’s perspective, but it also means sympathetically capturing tangible information. One method used by PM’s is to capture this information is in the form of persona types. The undeniable uniqueness of individuals is why we wind up having to create a variety of user segments and cohorts. These generalized groupings don’t always provide unique information about the user’s problem condition.

Some people have a seemingly natural ability to envision the problems faced by their users. While it is much more instinctual in certain individuals, empathy for the user is still a skill that can be augmented and refined when it is broken down into a set of objective methods.

First is formalizing the types of user pain-points. The types of problems users have are extremely varied, yet are ultimately solved by great products and features. In fact, its the value the product provides that ultimately solves your customer’s pain points. The gap between the problems users have and the value provided by technology products is bridged by 3 concepts. These concepts are general problem types that ground meaning for an individual. They mediate the relationship between user problems and product value.

Problem Type Concepts That Ground Meaning

  1. Overcome a Limitation
  2. Fulfill a Need
  3. Satisfy a Desire

These general problem types should be familiar to everyone. Their universality lies in their relevance to everyday experiences and interactions. They are innate to us because the sphere of influence each of them encompasses ultimately generates the value behind all our physical, mental, and social experiences. In cognitive science an individual experience is called qualia, it signifies ‘what the experience was like’. Like the dreadful anticipation and sharp pain from the experience of getting a flu shot or the innocuous experience of sniffing a flower. Ultimately an individual’s personal and subjective experience will vary, especially if they are afraid of needles or allergic to pollen.

If we have experiences that can be understood through 3 concepts, how can I use this information to build a minimal viable product (MVP), a new feature, or improve an existing product?

By breaking down these three problem types, we can create product artifacts that tell a well-connected story about your users. This valuable data on your users can supplement everything from user stories, prioritization, wire-frames, PRDs, usability tests, surveys, product copy, sales pitches, and marketing strategy.

User Empathy for Dissecting Problems

What questions allow me to comprehend the value users obtain from using my product? Ultimately, we want to understand the feelings people have when they interact with our product. When we analyze our experiences with a lens to categorize their origins, we are able to actually measure value and create an impression of empathy. This lens consists of 3 components, they signify the actual problem areas that are affected by anything we experience. Physical and digital experiences have meaning and value because they are all interpreted through a combination of three problem types.

  1. The Problem of Overcoming Limitations — You have social, physical, and psychological constraints that must be surpassed in order to be in a balanced or relieved state. Transcending your limitations can lead to emotions of exhilaration and elation. Experiences that overcome your limitations will generally have a neutral or positive affect. Those that further extenuate or call attention to limitations will often result in negative valence affects.
  2. The Problem of Unmet Needs — You have unmet needs because your physical, social, and psychological domains have innate requirements that require fulfillment. A need would only become a limitation if it is difficult to fulfill it. People very often overcome their limitations by fulfilling their related needs. i.e We need water for proper functioning but obtaining it in a desert climate is a limitation because of the scarcity in this environment.
  3. The Problem of Achieving Desires — You interpret the world and experiences around you in terms of things you want for your social, physical, and psychological continued happiness and well being. When experiences realize or facilitate your desires, then the inherent value is usually positive. Desires will very often involve grandiose ways to fulfill needs or overcome limitations

The abstraction of these problems is precisely what enables us to be empathetic to each other. Our motivations are predicated on these three perspective lenses. Whether the experience originated from nature, our own minds, or technology, it will always have a valence (1) affect on the individual, ultimately leaving a positive or negative imprint in one or more of these problem areas. In cognitive science, this imprint of emotions lies on the affective circumplex.

A visual representation of how experiences are translated to affect. The x-axis represents the basic value of experiences in the form of a valence. The y-axis represents the level of activation the experience induces.

The circumplex model of affect is one of the many theories of emotions that we can utilize as product leaders. The importance of these theories shouldn’t be understated. Research shows that our emotional granularity and vocabulary correlates with our ability to construct new emotional experiences.

Robert Plutchik’s, Wheel of Emotion is another illuminating theory that is premised on 8 primary and foundational emotions. More recent research has expanded this to show 27 distinct dimensions. Another informative emotional framework is Frederickson’s theory, which postulates that positive emotions broaden our behavioral options, referred to as the thought-action repertoire, while negative emotions generally have a narrowing effect on our behavioral options.

These and the many other theories of behavior and emotions are invaluable resources for understanding your users. The most accessible way to utilize these 3 problem principles is by considering them through an evolutionary viewpoint. It shouldn’t be surprising that most things we experience have implications for all three problem types.

Innovative solutions can create immense value for users by tackling any of these problem categories. Whether your problem is you need to find an apartment or are unable to track expenses for your department, a combination of these three problem types will be the lens to interpreting their value. Iterations and innovation to solve these problems ultimately lead to products like Zillow to find housing and QuickBooks for accounting.

Limitations, Needs, and Desires (LND) — Deep Dive

Overcoming Limitations refers to the fragility of our bodies, minds, and social connections. The problems we face in overcoming these limitations are the basic requirements for our long-term survival and sustainability. In technology, overcoming limits is required for long-term sustainability. While many products provide solutions for problems that directly affect sleep cycles, housing, and food security, overcoming limitations is also apparent when there is a constraint preventing a user from accomplishing their goal.

The most widespread taught framework for motivation is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Much research has shown that the existence of an actual ranking or hierarchy is unfounded.

Tech Example for Overcoming a Limitation — Medium’s follow button overcomes my daily time limitation for digesting content. Instead of having to bookmark and search writers for new posts, I’m able to overcome this time-consuming task with their curated feeds. The seamless engagement cycle for reading articles provides me with more time to consume content.

Fulfilling Needs refers to the general requirements necessary for a productive and sustainable life. They are essentially the top 4 layers of the Maslow Hierarchy, composed of safety or security, belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. In regards to human survival, all of these needs are problems that must be met in order for an individual to be content and sustain an integrated life with society.

In tech, there are many products like social networks and dating apps that solve problems related to meeting the needs of belonging. Even a basic business function like tracking customer payments is a need. Without knowing which customers have paid their invoice, a company would struggle to sustain their operations. Solutions that tackle this need would positively impact business's sustainability.

Tech Example for Meeting a Need — Medium’s applause feature meets my need to quantify engagement with my content. Since writers need to understand how their content is received, it’s imperative for readers to be able to provide feedback. This creates a reinforcing cycle where writers can understand which topics have a high level of appreciation. Since writers may also have goals in building a readership following, this features value helps attain this need.

Satisfying Desires refer to experiences that stem from an idealistic vision of overcoming a limitation or meeting a need. This can be something imaginatively extravagant such as flying like a bird or to the relatively mundane and innocuous desire of having green hair. What does become clear is that it is exceedingly difficult to have desires that aren’t consequences of the needs and limitations of our social, psychological, and physical lives. Our desires and passions are the bedrock of imagination and the predominant driver for innovation in society.

Curiosity-driven motivations are what brought us everything from medicine to airplanes. In product development, the customer’s desires help PMs understand the long-term goals of the user or enterprise. Ultimately, the most sustainable technology products and brands are born out of visionary innovators who aim to solve the most difficult problem, customer desires.

Tech Example for Satisfying a Desire — Medium’s publication product satisfies my desire to reach an audience. The platform of content and its readership fulfill the writers’ desire to digitally publish their content and reach an audience. Since writing is possible on many other blogging platforms, the outcome from Medium’s publishing feature also overcomes the limitation of obtaining visitors by providing an integrated readership.

Noticeably, these problem types don’t have clear-cut boundaries and are very much intertwined, influencing each other because of their singular evolutionary origins. Just like every other experience, a user’s experience with your product will be unique depending on their individual perspective.

Recognizing these characteristics aids the process of defining personas, segments, and cohorts. But to accomplish that we’ll need to complete the story of how we digest these three problem types. By incorporating developmental psychology and engaging the modes of learning we utilize as infants and adults, I’m able to advance a mediating framework that adds context to the problem types.

Mediators of the LND Problem Types

By utilizing frameworks from childhood development theories, we can get a stronger understanding of the domains of our lives affected by any experience. The meaning grounding properties of the 3 problem types can be further stratified by three familiar and universal mediators that fuel our motivations.

Three Mediators of Our Motivations

  1. A physical component of involving our body, it’s well being, and how it interacts with the environment. Pertaining to our physical health, physical capabilities, and all overall sensory interactions with the world.
  2. A psychological or cognitive component that reflects on our emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and states of mind. Pertains to our spirituality, religion, sexuality, and overall mental health.
  3. A social component that harmonizes our psychological connection to the world and others. Pertains to our relationships and attributes like intimacy, trust, and dependency.

Throughout our developmental maturation, there is tremendous overlap amongst these 3 learning mediators. Pediatricians and children’s psychologists examine their patients learning mediators to ensure that they develop with the capacity to fully conceptualize any experience. In the startup and product management context, these problem types and mediators provide us the ability to empathetically interpret user experiences. The mediators also indicate the functional learning domain impacted by a specific feature or the entire product.

The meaning, value, and motivation generated from the three LND problem types and PSP (physical, social, and psychological) mediators are so influential that it often creates sub-conscious significance to users. A factor that adds additional complexity is that no experience occurs in a vacuum, they all are confounded by what is often referred to as the 8th sense. Psychologists term this interoception, It creates feelings like irritability from being hungry or out in the summer heat. The below comic is a great example of the confounding nature of interoception feelings.

Because it’s difficult to separate the emotions triggered by our internal organs, Interoception can confound the true value of our experiences.

Interoception can be understood as the constant experience generated by a multitude of pathways from our bodies to our brains. They help keep us aware of our body's needs and limitations. It’s our physical body way of continually sending signals through the LND-PSP problem types. These interoception feelings are part of the initial state of the person.

The other part is the memory, meaning, and value of the individual’s previous experiences. Both aspects of the user’s initial state will continue to feed input that influences future subsequent experiences. One of the difficulties in building empathy and emotional intelligence is making sense of all these confounding factors.

The following infographic is an example of the empathy framework applied to a familiar scenario. It illustrates that anyone can expose the problems an experience triggers. In the scenario below, it’s this person’s birthday. The individual just started dating his new partner and is anxious for an early work meeting that morning. As he arrives to work there is a gift basket delivery with flowers waiting at his desk. He processes this experience through the lens of problem types and their mediators.

The experience of receiving a bouquet of flowers on Valentine's Day creates meaning for the individual from the cascade of valences induced by the experience. The value arises from how heavily each of them is weighted in that specific moment in a person’s life. This confluence of valence is the empathetic attributes, we can share with the individual.

The affective states are produced through these problem types and mediators. This methodology for understanding how affective states are produced allows us to develop an empathetic relationship with our users. The principles for understanding experiences are rooted in problems, the real motivation behind all our actions and decisions. Problems induce the dichotomy of affective states from the range of positive, negative, and neutral valences they generate.

Advertising and design teams excel at creating media and user interfaces with meticulously chosen colors, fonts, wording, spacing, and various other elements to induce specific values, meaning, and trigger emotions. Branding and marketing have roots in similar principles and have proven to be invaluable to a product’s success.

Usually, the quality or valence of a product is positive, but negative effects for users are also quite common. One of the drawbacks of social media stems from the fact that we are highly reward oriented, in situations when a product doesn’t deliver a reward, a user may experience an adverse effect. And even when it does provide a reward, then negative effects may exist through addictive behavior or misinformation.

As product leaders, we are responsible for navigating these consequences to find a balance for users and customers. Ultimately, user empathy allows founders and product managers to impede the negative effects of their products by capturing all the problem dimensions of the user experience. Because this information allows for foresight, we can proactively ensure a positive impact on the lives of users. Sustainable impact is especially important for mission-driven startups that have a disruptive vision that require them to anticipate unintended consequences.

Nearly every product from wearables and healthcare apps to social media platforms requires preventative action to mitigate detrimental consequences on users' lives. Now, because of the proliferation of AI-powered learning products, algorithms are trained on swaths of data that hold many implicit and algorithmic biases. These realities of technology development create an urgency for product leaders to mitigate the negative impact and prevent these biases from infiltrating the product, users' lives, and society.

Applying The User Empathy Framework

This empathetic problem-solving framework serves as a guide towards promoting sustainable practices in a product team or organization. As an analytic methodology, it combines qualitative and quantitive research. The empathy framework can aid in interpreting and utilizing the troves of research studies that show technology benefits like social capital as well as adverse effects like cyberbullying and isolation.

By integrating the problems arising from rapidly evolving technology products, this empathy framework provides a structured process for digesting and incorporating findings like virtual distance and digital responsibility. The key to managing the effects of a product is by exhausting our channels of research and information.

Refining our skills in empathy grants us the ability to personalize another individual’s subjective experiences. While it is an innate quality, empathy can be trained, refined, and incorporated into the thought patterns for our love of problems.

By approaching everything from analytics, user tests, research, and customer interactions with these three problem types, your team, and the company will consistently be working towards sustainability. Designing your product by focusing on user problems builds can establish a company culture of empathy that eventually translates to trust from your customers.

My hope is that this framework can help others traverse their personal and professional goals by guiding them towards understanding their impact, helping them become empathetic, and improving their overall emotional intelligence. The convergence of these skills leading to a culture of compassionate and mindful decisions.

In future stories, I’ll continue to advance this framework with a focus on pragmatic product management. By tracking both the short and long-term user journeys, product managers can create a path towards a sustainable product life cycle. Until then channel your empathy, and be impactful!



Suketu Patel

Product Manager. Solving problems with empathy and compassion | Healthcare, AI, Social Impact & Sustainability