User empathy as core of product design

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                           (photo courtesy: bigpicturecoaching.net)

Software product design used to involve ‘requirement gathering’ then developing them into a usable product, adding in some of your own understanding and experience of how it should be done. The word ‘empathy’ was not a commonly heard term in the business of software, until late.

I was engaging with user experience design when I first encountered the term ‘empathy’, which itself is relatively a new science. That time, I was developing a User Persona, looking into a specific person’s life and trying to walk in their shoes while designing the interaction with the system.

This got more intense as I started diving into Lean Startup practices in product development and building startups. It takes some time, particularly for my MBA students, to grasp the concept – why market data and survey results are not acceptable forms of information when testing an assumption for the core hypothesis – when building entrepreneurial business models. This holds especially true for them because they come from traditional management thinking for the last 12 or 16 months where they learned how to do market research and only accept statistically relevant findings.

Lean Startup talks about first defining your customers to very fine specifics, then meeting them face to face and understand their experience with a problem that you are trying to solve. It does not even recommend suggesting a solution till you can fully understand the pains, the aspirations, and the workarounds of your user for the given situation. When talking to customers, you limit discussion to facts and real experiences rather than hypothetical/what-if questions. This activity of talking to your customers is what builds empathy. You become intimate with their problems and you understand their personalities, wants, and needs. The insights that you gather will give you a clearer sense of the product that you are designing, from its features down to the colors that you will use.

Once you’ve started talking about their problem and pain points, you then find what they are trying to do about it, whether they can get by or they’re really seeking a solution. If the potential customers you are interviewing can live without a solution, there are two possible conclusions: 1) you are talking to the wrong customers, meaning there might be a different set of people who are craving for a solution, or 2) it’s not pressing enough an issue and building a product to solve it a waste of time and energy for everyone. However, if the potential customers cannot get by with the solutions that they currently have, then you are definitely on to something.

The concept of not writing a single line of code or even a mockup solution until you’ve walk in the shoes of your customers and you’ve identified a solution that they’ve been looking for – this is scary in the beginning. Especially for technology people, it’s not easy going out to the streets and doing ambush interviews with people (who match your customer persona) and getting them to share their experiences is not easy. However, if we are to build something that we want people to use and be thankful about, there is no better way.

Perhaps the dreaded concept of “vapor ware” makes more sense now, once you understand lean better. After building that empathy, you sell the concept or pitch it and see how many ready to buy, before you even spend any money on it. Focusing on pull over push is the new game changer in the product engineering business, and it’s changing how we all approach it.

Welcome to the new world of user empathy: it’s not any more about opening your eyes as much as it is about opening your heart, and it’s not about IQ as much as it is about EQ.

Points to Consider for Outsourcing

Coming from both ends of the spectrum of outsourcing and offshoring for the last 10 years and picking up on the pain points from others in the industry, the following is my collection of things to consider:

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  • Freelancers: Choosing the right freelance talent works best for specific, one-off assignments. However, if you have a large project which requires a lot of collaboration and coordination, you might want to consider getting an entire team from one company rather than gathering several freelancers and form your team. The latter seems to be the more affordable option, but you have to bear in mind that a lot more value can be delivered by the former. A group from a company has established processes, administrative support, centralized invoicing, and other services that may add a bit more to your cost, but also saves you from a lot of headache. The whole is bigger than the sum of the parts, after all.
  • Cheap: You are already saving a lot by going offshore, I believe a 40-50% saving from what you would pay locally is a good expectation. However, once you try to save more by going to the next cheaper group of service providers, you might be looking for trouble. Remember the people you are working with are also in business and they need to make enough money to 1) deliver quality output; and 2) be interested in doing business with you in the long term.
  • Flat World: Knowledge and know-how are more universal today due to the Internet and people working with each other across the world. Its best to be open minded about what the provider can contribute to your project, not only in terms of labor but also insights. Chances are, the outsourcing providers have had other similar or related experiences that can help improve your product concept.
  • Process: Sometimes following a process seems like a waste of time, but in reality it comes back to bite you later – in the form of missed out items and heavy rework. Working without any clear specifications and processes might work fine in a small collocated team, where knowledge sharing is seamless and instantaneous. However, as the team grows and extends beyond your table and physical office, you just can’t live without specifications and processes. Remember that ‘Lean’ and ‘Agile’ concepts talk about doing only the necessary documentation, not ‘no documents at all.’
  • Trust & Transparency: Starting small, knowing the people from outsourcing providers as intimately as your own team members at your office, and building the human connection is critical. It might be natural if you are in the same office working hours on your project –but when you are across the ocean from your outsourcing team, you really need to make a conscious effort to build the relation and trust. Spend some time visiting them at the beginning and during the project.
  • Big Benefit of Small Talk: To make lot of the above items to happen, there is no substitute for small talk. In the office you get to do this by the water cooler, over lunch, or over beer after work hours. With your outsourcing providers, you should try this over social channels like being part of their FB and Linkedin network. Constant Instant Messaging (IM) via Skype, YM, Live Messenger, etc. is a good option, too. When doing IM with the outsourcing team, perhaps keep a window open – this seems to work well for a couple of our teams. It’s like a police blotter where open discussions and knowledge keep happening between all the team members.

Leverage on Technology: Remember there was no outsourcing and offshoring of service before the Internet, technology made it happen. Don’t think its waste of money or time in leveraging as much possible on technology in getting all the above done smoothly and easily. Try an online tool like www.xamun.com to manage your projects, clients and distributed

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