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Empathize: Seek to understand before being understood

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Now you have some idea of what Design Thinking is, how it works, and with what kind of problems it can help you. Let’s dive deeper into the first phase of Empathize. (If you don’t, read the previous blogpost that gives an introduction to Design Thinking and its relevance to Product Owners.)

Great products are designed with the users in mind. Easy to say, difficult to do. We often end up thinking about cool features and solutions, but are unsure about which problems they really solve. So it’s best to start our customers and their problems.

To make sure we don’t get stuck in confirmation bias, in the Empathize phase we often start with observations and interviews. Observations are great, because watching someone without interfering is almost as objective as you can get. It’s finding real data that can lead to valuable insights. Unmet needs customers didn’t even know they had or could formulate.

To do this, find ways to interact with your user group. Where are they, what times, what do they do, what is a recurring trend, what’s out of the obvious? For example, if we are a train company and we want to improve the train onboarding/offboarding experience, we could go to a train station and observe people getting on and off. In the beginning you don’t know what exactly you are looking for – which is very important! It makes you neutral. Only after some time will you start to see trends. After observing we could engage with train passengers by asking questions about their behavior. About what goes on in them doing the activity of getting on and off. What is standing out positively and negatively.

One of the best ways to capture all this qualitative data is with an Empathy Map. There are many variations out there but I like this one the best, as it is simple to start with.

  1. Start with your user (group) and the context. Don’t keep it too vague (e.g. women) but also not too specific (e.g. female students between 20-30 who live alone and have a pet dog).
  2. Observe what they do in the context of your user research. What are their actions, tasks, how do they use your product (if they do), do they use workarounds?
  3. And write down what they say. Don’t fill in, try to get some real quotes. These often provide a lot of customer insight.

When we have quite some information from the external world, stuff we can actually see and hear from our users, it’s time to try what that means about their internal world: their thoughts and feelings.

  1. Here it gets tricky, because it will get more subjective. You can’t actually hear their thoughts, but you can sort of discover them. Often it is listening “in between the lines” of what they say. For example, if they say “I am not so good with technology. I hear we have to start using a new app soon at the company.” some thoughts could be “What will that mean for the future of my job?” or “What if I don’t get the hang of it? Will they fire me?”
  2. These are often one-word feelings. Like worried, excited, happy, frustrated. In this specific example, we can also get some sense of their emotions. It could “anxiety”, “uncertain” or “curious”. The interesting is that often there are several emotions, some seemingly contradicting. We are after all humans.
  3. Only after we have done that do we go to pains and gains. This should be an extraction of the most important and insightful data we uncovered in the previous steps. With pains it is about what they are trying to avoid. What in their experience is cumbersome, annoying, frustrating, unwanted? What’s challenging or in their way?
  4. With gains it’s about what they hope to achieve. How is it when their needs would be met? What are (maybe even hidden) desires? Again, this should not be anything new but a condensation of previous data.

Wow, now you have a lot of interesting insights about your user and what is important to them. The next step is doing something with that! The next step will be Define, where we formulate a point-of-view of problem statement. More about that in the following post.

For now, a challenge: Try out the Empathy Map with colleagues. Find a user, stakeholder, or other party you want to get more understanding about. What can you do to observe and interview them? Collect that on the map. Reflect and evaluate of your understanding about them has increased.

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