In the early-00s, Blockbuster was the undisputed leader in home video rental. Valued at around $5 billion during its peak, the company had nothing to fear as a start-up called Netflix claimed its own minuscule sliver of the home video pie. The majority of Blockbuster’s revenue was made on late fees and new release, after all, something that Netflix’s subscription-based rental model didn’t even include.
What Blockbuster didn’t take into account, however, is that its customers didn’t always want to only watch new releases. Sometimes, they wanted to rewatch older movies or binge-watch seasons of their favorite shows. And they certainly wanted more than 24 hours with a rental before getting charged exorbitant late fees. Netflix accounted for all of these consumer wants and built its entire business model around it.
Netflix had empathy for what its customers wanted, while Blockbuster only focused on what would bring in the most revenue. And we all know how that ended.
So, why am I bringing up the nearly twenty-year-old battle for home movie rentals? Because it perfectly illustrates what can happen to non-empathetic companies.
The Business Case For Empathy
When we think about building products, empathy is king. It’s the secret ingredient you can add to your product design and development process to outperform your competition. If you’re designing and building screens, there’s a human somewhere on the other end interacting with those screens.
As designers, everything we do centers around the people that are having those interactions. By taking a more empathetic approach, it arms us with insights about what’s driving their behavior.
But how can we ensure that we’re taking a genuine, empathetic approach to our work?
Really Understand Your User
Empathy allows us to understand the challenges we are trying to solve on a deep level. It also allows us to understand the people who have those challenges and begin to answer certain questions about them:
- What are the unmet needs that people are encountering?
- What are the behaviors of the people with these challenges?
- What insights do we gain about them and the context of their problem?
- What’s driving their desires?
Finally, empathy allows us to find new solutions for those challenges. Because of the connection and understanding we have with the people using the products, we can develop solutions that better meet the needs they have.
What Versus Why
Currently, when businesses begin to look at developing new products and services or making changes to existing products, we immediately turn to the data — particularly quantitative data.
We now have the ability to measure everything in great detail, and, more often than not, we base all of our business decisions on these numbers. Now, I’m not against looking at the quantitative data by any means. However, it doesn’t always paint an accurate picture. The reason is that by the time it’s been culled and ends up in a PowerPoint deck for a presentation, it’s an abstraction of what is happening with the product or service.
Data can actually turn out to be an inhibitor because it tells you what, but it doesn’t tell you why. You need a different approach entirely to get to the why.
Does the Map Get Us There?
If we think about abstracted data as a map, it often differs greatly from the actual landscape. Think about trying to use the London Underground map as your guide for walking around the city. The actual distance between places is very different than how it appears on the map.
The map doesn’t really show what’s going on underground or above ground. It’s a complete abstract of the reality that is the city of London. This is often how those PowerPoint decks end up portraying business data, in the abstract.
Quantitative data leads us to abstract problem definitions. It doesn’t allow us to see and experience the true landscape on the ground. This can lead us to have an empathy deficit. This approach leads to companies and product teams getting farther away from their customers.
This deficit leads to ill-considered products and solutions that often do not fit the users’ needs. When we design from super abstract data the products we are designing are often destined to fail, or at the very least not fully meeting the customers’ expectations.
In the opening example, Blockbuster was only looking at quantitative data. Since most of its high revenue was from late fees and new releases, why not continue with that as a strategy? With a qualitative approach, it would have realized that customers were renting new releases and begrudgingly paying late fees because there wasn’t another option.
Netflix, on the other hand, figured out what people actually wanted their movie rental experience to be and built its business model around it — thereby providing an alternate option. That qualitative view meant Netflix’s piece of the pie grew exponentially into a much more sustainable business model.
Empathy or Empathy Theater
Another problem that businesses often run into is how they perceive empathy. Many groups turn to the voice of customer activities or focus groups. While these exercises feel like they get us close to our customers, do they really? Usually, there is one voice in the room that’s louder than everyone else and polarizes the group.
These exercises are also conducted out of context and in a setting where people feel like they have to perform. All of these sorts of things can lead to skewed data and understanding of the customer.
In these situations, customers often don’t mention their unmet needs or desires. This requires a deeper kind of conversation, in context, rather than a phone interview or something similar. Out of context, it is much harder to identify friction points that someone may be experiencing.
Many times, companies tend to ask customers hypothetical questions. “Would this work for you?” “Would you like this feature or that feature?” The hypothetical is something with which the human brain really struggles.
Without a lived experience it’s really hard to determine how to answer these things, so the default becomes an agreement. “Yes, I would love that feature.”
It really ends up being empathy theater rather than a true understanding of people and their needs.
A Pharmacist’s Tale
Here’s a real-life example that illustrates the above points. A couple of years ago, I was helping a company redesign a Health Information Exchange (HIE). These are used in hospital systems throughout the country to share all of a patient’s data from various health records systems that physicians employ. I was doing a contextual interview with a pharmacist for a half-day and was following her on her rounds to understand her workflow.
We started at the beginning of her day as she was beginning to get ready for her rounds. I asked the obligatory question of “Tell me how the system is working for you…” in reference to the product we were researching.
She gave me a short answer: “It’s great, it does everything I need it to do.“
“Ok, I’ll just observe for a bit. Go about your day as normal.”
She then did a query on the desktop computer she was using. Then a very peculiar thing happened; she pulled two more laptops out of a bag, fired them up, and did a query on each one.
Ok, this was a head-scratcher. When I asked what was going on, she stated that the system was so slow that this was the only way she could get ready for her rounds in time.
We moved on and I continued to observe. She printed each query she was working on for each patient — a list of all of the patient’s medications from all of the different sources that they might pick up their meds, Walgreens, CVS, Target, Walmart, etc. Then, she would make another printout for each patient of something else and code both printouts with a coding system that she had developed.
When I probed about these, she showed us that the HIE was integrated with all sources except one — the hospital’s pharmacy. With both printouts, she was cross-referencing the meds each patient was on in the hospital with their medication history and other current medications to make sure there wasn’t going to be any interactions.
These are two pretty critical issues that hinder how she is able to safely administer care to patients. If we had just done a phone interview or a focus group at the hospital, we would have never observed the issues she was encountering and never would have been able to design around these needs. So, you can see, context is everything. The value of being on the ground and observing real-life problems in a system can’t be overemphasized.
How To Be Better At Empathy
Gaining empathy for your customers is a critical part of a modern product design process. It’s something that’s ongoing and should be in continual motion, not just at the beginning of a product’s design. There are numerous ways to do this work and gather these insights, but that’s a whole other series of articles. For now, I’ll cover some tips that will help team members build some empathy-gathering muscle.
Read Stories That Emotionally Transport You
Read more fiction. Scientific studies have shown that people that read fiction have better social cognition and therefore develop deeper empathy and compassion for others. When we read fiction that emotionally transports us, we can imagine ourselves in the character’s position and what it’s like to be them. This enables us to better understand people and to empathize with their situation.
Practice Active Listening
Our tendency, especially when we’re in research mode, is to think about the next question to ask or to reflect back what someone is saying. But this isn’t really listening. Try listening with the intent to understand; try to get inside of their frame of reference.
See the world how they see the world. In other words, try to get into their paradigm. Work to understand how they feel.
Observe the Everyday
Become a good people watcher. Go sit in a coffee shop, a park, or, for something really interesting, observe people the next time you are traveling through an airport. Just observe.
What are people doing? How are they doing it? Are they having trouble trying to accomplish the thing they are doing?
Often this silent sort of observation can provide some of the biggest clues to the unmet needs that customers or users have. Think about the pharmacist example from before. Most of the issues we found were discovered in silent observation.
Be an Empathetic Adventurer
Go places you wouldn’t normally go. If country music isn’t your thing, go to a country bar. Get out of your comfort zone and experience the world with people that aren’t like you. Not only will this help you with empathy gathering it will make your life much richer indeed.
It’s All About Real People
In the end, all of this is about the real people that are on the other side of the products and services that we build. Gaining deep empathy for these folks allows us to discover their unmet needs. It helps us gain emotional intelligence and behavioral insights about customers that we couldn’t gain any other way. And, it inspires the team to solve these problems in a meaningful way that provides value to the end-user.