We all know that empathy is a key ingredient in developing lovable products, so what can product managers do to cultivate it?
I had a relatively unusual upbringing, and because of my father’s profession, we moved around every couple of years when I was a child. I attended international schools in Yemen, Thailand and Finland, learning in classrooms with kids from all over the globe. While we all came from different backgrounds, we had one thing in common: open-mindedness. We had to be open-minded, as we wanted a sense of belonging. Learning the local language (or trying to anyway) and seeing different religions and values made you reflect on your own.
This open-mindedness has evolved into empathy as a product manager, which I believe is a key ingredient in developing lovable products. So what does empathy actually look like in product management and how do you and others around you become more empathetic?
Empathy and Product Management
Empathy in product management can best be described as the ability to put yourself in the shoes of your customer. “Customer first” or “customer focused” are buzzwords that are thrown around a lot, but what does being customer first mean in practice? For me, it means stepping away from your own needs and experiences, and the assumption that every customer has the same needs. We are all different and our products should reflect that. You should get out of your “bubble” and educate yourself on the different types of customers that are using your product.
I worked in product management in financial services in London for a couple of years. Although the UK is one of the richest countries in the world, I learned that half of the UK’s 22 to 29-year-olds have no savings, and that the UK has an estimated 14.2 million people living in poverty. I also learned that 7.1 million English people are considered functionally illiterate.
As a product manager, it was my job to consider financially vulnerable customers and to ensure we provided them with the appropriate level of information and support to make the right financial choices. For instance, I would reflect on the following: Is this product easily understood if I were to apply for it for the first time? Are we catering to different types of learning by using video, images and text? Are the risks written in plain English and are they easily accessible?
Tools to Become More Empathetic
Fortunately, there are tools and frameworks available to help you and those around you to become more empathetic. Below are some that I’ve found to be the most effective.
1. Get Early Customer Input, Listen and Iterate
Customer testing is a great way to gain insight into what your customers really think of your product. I have always booked in regular customer testing (often once a month aligned to the sprint cycle) and invited my entire team to attend – and I mean business analysts, developers, testers, copywriters and designers. While it’s important for a product manager to be empathetic, getting the team who designs and develops the product to be more empathetic ultimately results in an even better product.
I remember when we carried out usability testing on a prototype from a new design lead. The design lead had created an aesthetically pleasing design but clearly hadn’t considered accessibility and usability. During customer testing comments like “What does this say? Let me put on my glasses”, were common or customers would try to pinch to zoom in. This was a big learning for the team and especially for the design lead. Both accessibility and usability were center of mind in future designs and ultimately the product that was developed.
2. Create and use Personas
Personas can be a powerful tool to remind you of the diversity of your customer base. Personas represent different types of customers and allow your team to think about their perspective. But they need to be visible to add value. In my experience, they too often get lost on someone’s Mac and no one talks about them again. Stick them up on a wall, refer back to them when preparing for customer testing. That way you ensure you’ve considered all your different types of customers and you get a balanced view when you overlay your customer testing results with your personas.
3. Users Versus Customers Versus Humans
The language we use can make such a difference. Sitting a corporate office away from “our users” can create an unconscious distance. I remember being in a high-profile meeting with business stakeholders who knew our credit card offering inside out and were convinced everyone knew what a balance transfer and a money transfer was. Showing videos of humans struggling with our marketing pages made them realise that their assumptions were misguided. Qualitative data can be a powerful tool to create empathy.
They say travel is the best education. If you travel outside your office and speak to potential or existing customers, you may be surprised by what people have to say. Visit a physical store (if you have this luxury), sit and listen to calls, interact with customers through your live chat or simply scroll through the app store comments. And don’t be afraid to take rough sketches or the minimum amount you can do to get customer feedback and refine your thinking.
You will go on to build better products, and your customers will thank you for it.