User empathy as core of product design


                           (photo courtesy:

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.