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How to Increase User Empathy and Build Better Products

Live your customer's experience to ensure you're putting out valuable products that continue to deliver.

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User empathy helps put the customer at the very center of everything a business does, creating better products, memorable brands and companies that last. 

Empathy is the ability to step into users’ shoes, see a company product through their eyes and share their feelings. It's about living through the customer’s experience during the onboarding and day-to-day usage of the product and understanding what it feels like to be a customer of your business.

Sympathy vs. empathy

There is a difference between being sympathetic and empathetic. When you are sympathetic, you intellectually acknowledge the customer's feelings but keep yourself detached from them. For example, you understand that the registration process for your product is long and requires filling in a lot of information. You acknowledge some people might be frustrated by it. Empathy, on the other hand, allows you to share the cognitive experience a person has during this long and probably annoying registration process.

Related: What Is Empathy, and Why Is It So Important for Great Leaders?

Frameworks to incorporate empathy

User empathy is the best tool to read customers’ minds and hearts. You can embrace empathy by empowering internal initiatives, which motivate a team to listen to users and observe how they behave. Let’s discuss some of them.

User research

Research is the first step in creating the company offering. It can involve product, marketing and design teams. During the research, teams create hypotheses and validate them. Validation methods include surveys, interviews, testing with a product concept, observations, analyzing existing quantitative and qualitative data, and absorbing feedback.

The research will result in a better understanding of users' needs and pain points. It will provide the team with customer insights and a sense of purpose when it comes to building the product and improving the lives of users.

User personas

Personas help your business keep different types of customers in mind. A user-experience persona answers the question, "Why is the user doing something?" It drives design and product decisions. At the same time, marketing (buyer) persona answers the question, "Who is the user?" It defines the user demographic, media consumption and targeting characteristics. The process of creating personas can be an empathy exercise in thinking from the user’s perspective.

Related: User Experience Is the Most Important Metric You Aren't Measuring

It's important to have both personas created, distributed and used as a North Star for product and marketing decisions. Visible personas ensure that all the stakeholders — researchers, designers, product managers, engineers, marketing and sales teams — are on the same page and know the customer.

Building empathy maps

Empathy maps are a visual tool used by design teams that put users first (human-centered design approach). An empathy map has four quadrants, which account for what the customer says, thinks, does and feels. When filling in this map, the team takes time to understand users and empathize with them.

Usually, team members explore empathy maps at the beginning of the design process, after the research has been conducted. After filling in the empathy map, the team experiences customers’ struggles firsthand, causing them to form a stronger connection with users.

Customer journey mapping

Customer journey mapping is another design tool that allows teams to gain empathy by understanding a user’s behavior during all stages of their journey. The maps can be retrospective (showing the current user behavior) or prospective (showing the expected user behavior). This type of mapping reveals how users experience the product, which jobs they can get done with it and which pain points they experience.

User stories

Many businesses fall into the trap of creating products no one needs. If a product team lacks empathy and is driven by its own vision and biased beliefs, the chances of creating a useless product are quite high. User stories put the focus on the user's needs. It's a feature used by product managers or engineers to describe how a product feature brings value to the customer.

A user story is a statement written with a formula: “As [a user], I want [to make this action] so that [I can achieve this goal].” Formulating all features in user stories puts the user in the center of the development. It focuses the engineering team on why they are building something and for whom. 

A day in customer support

The support-team members are the ones who meet customers every day. They reply to requests, help solve issues and create a customer experience and loyalty. This team is the essence of genuine customer care, active listening and empathy.

Having a practice of working in support at least one day a quarter can give any team member a huge boost of user empathy. While a big corporation might have a standardized practice of involving team members with customer support, startups should also make an effort to give team members that valuable experience. 

Related: Why User Experience Is Vital for Quality SEO

Using your own product

What if your team could feel what it’s like to log into your product, go through onboarding and use those new features you released last month?

This experience can reveal the product flaws, main features benefits and how your offering fits into the workflow. Not all products are possible to use internally. But if your company is a user of your own solution, then this option is essential for you. 

User empathy is important for everyone in the organization — from product managers to leadership. It is a foundation for customer-centric culture. Ideally, it should be incorporated in all departments and all processes while being tracked as one of the company’s goals.

Lisa Dziuba

Written By

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

Lisa Dziuba is a marketing leader and head of marketing at WeLoveNoCode. She is a former head of marketing and community at Abstract SDK. Prior to that, she co-founded Flawless, a development startup, which was later acquired by Abstract. She also made Forbes' 30 Under 30 list.