Build customer empathy by listening to their stories

Whenever I start a conversation with someone, I think about how I can best connect with that person. Sharing stories is an excellent way in.

Stories not only reveal details about the storyteller, they allow you to connect on an emotional level. In fact, the connection may go even deeper.

A study at Princeton found that during storytelling the brain activity in persons listening to a story closely matches that of the person telling it.

The analysis revealed that during successful communication the listener’s brain responses become similar to the speaker’s brain responses. This implies that people understand each other by mirroring each others’ brain responses. (Image courtesy of Uri Hasson during the Princeton study).

Stories can help create alignment. They can take you along on the roller coaster of the storyteller’s experiences, letting you in on the highs and lows, successes and defeats, and, importantly from a product manager standpoint, the needs and pain points they hit when working with a particular product.

As I noted in an earlier post, design thinking aims to build products people want, products they’ll find useful, and products that can reasonably be built given current technology. It’s the process that’s guided development of Adobe XD from the beginning.

Design thinking seeks to identify needs rather than solve problems. It follows five phases: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test.

Empathizing with your customers means understanding where they’re coming from, what their needs are, and where the pain points are. We are not looking for hard truths here — we’re seeking insights.

To build empathy, we can lean on several anthropological techniques: watch people as they perform an activity, experience performing that activity ourselves, or conduct interviews with a selected subset of the people we want to learn about.

Successful interviews draw out stories; and successful interviewers know how to ask questions without getting in the way of the story.

Seek quality over quantity when collecting customer stories

Because stories are subjective, interviews must be qualitative, not quantitative. Rather than quick interviews with 100 people, you get better insights by talking to fewer people for a longer time. When forming your interview pool, look for a good mix of experience and interests.

For example, if your target number is 10, you might recruit six designers who fall within the mid-range of users and two to four “extreme users” — long-time users who have seen the products through multiple evolutions, or designers who use the products in an unusual way.

When interviewing, I typically follow a step-by-step process, outlined in the chart below.

First, I introduce myself, then the project and its purpose.

The next — and critical — step is to establish rapport, finding those moments in a conversation where you connect with your subject. You can create these connections through stories. Stories allow you to explore emotions and identify pain points.

Remember, you’re not trying to solve problems here; you’re just looking for the needs, driven by what users say or do, and by what users think or feel. Try not to limit your interview to a set time — allow time for the interview to evolve.

When you’ve finished, wrap it up, thank the interviewee, and you can move on to unpacking your findings and creating empathy maps.

Here, I’ve listed some practical tips for conducting interviews that can lead to powerful customer stories.

Get authentic customer stories with these nine interview techniques

1. Ask open-ended questions

Think about how you phrase your questions. Avoid starting with comments like “you know” or “normally,” which can influence the response. Ask open-ended questions such as, “tell me about the last time you did x or y.” This type of question will encourage your subject to tell a story rather than just answer “yes” or “no.”

Even if the stories aren’t true, they can reveal what the person thinks and feels. Moreover, in telling a story, the interviewee is likely to recall details he or she may have forgotten.

2. Always ask why

Be the curious kid. Even if you think you understand what the interviewee is describing, ask why.

In another post, I describe the five whys framework — that is, by asking five whys, you can get to the root of any problem. Never assume!

3. Look for inconsistencies

Sometimes, interviewees will describe a process that they don’t follow or make statements that aren’t true. You can usually tell based on their answers.

Inconsistencies are important because they can lead to insights about implicit needs — perhaps they’re explaining how something could be done better, if only . . .

4. Look for nonverbal signals

If the person you’re interviewing is fidgeting, twirling their hair, or avoiding eye contact, it’s possible that what they’re saying isn’t 100 percent true. There’s a vulnerability in not telling the truth, and it’s worth exploring.

People tend to act out how they feel, especially when they’re uncomfortable or nervous.

5. Don’t be afraid of silence

This can be one of the hardest tips to follow. It’s natural to want to help someone if you think they’re stuck or unsure. If your interviewee is silent after a question, give him or her time to think through the answer. It may take a minute or two, but be patient. You’ll get a better response.

6. Never suggest answers

Stay as neutral as possible. Often, if you propose an answer, the person you’re interviewing will agree, whether or not it’s what he or she wants or feels.

Instead of asking, “This is a good idea, right?” say, “What do you think of this?” or “How might you do this?”

7. Keep your questions concise

Long questions lose people. They’re confusing and people often aren’t sure which part of a multi-layered question to answer first.

As a general rule, I try to limit questions to 10 words.

8. Stick to one question at a time and one person at a time

It might be faster to interview several people together, but you’ll lose out on quality. Interviews are most successful when they’re one on one, so resist the urge to pull your teammates in as well.

Don’t overload the interview with multiple questions. Take your time and make sure each question is answered before moving on to the next.

9. Be sure to record the conversation

You’ll want to save the conversation for later unpacking. You can use audio, film, video, or even have someone sit in taking notes. You get the most immediate and authentic feedback when interviews are in person because there’s typically more friction when people meet face to face. However, interviews over Skype or the phone can yield great material as well.

Putting on your anthropologist hat at this first phase of design thinking will help you gather the stories you need. And those stories will ultimately help deliver products that meet the design thinking goals: desirable, usable, and technically practical.

Happy interviewing!

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