Building empathy in a product team

Main illustration: Laura Bohill

For product teams, empathy building activities such as observing research or doing customer support is often not considered “real work”.

“Assumptions are the kryptonite of product teams”

However, product teams that consistently keep customer needs in mind are able to maintain and evolve their products in ways that won’t negatively impact the user experience.

Finding opportunities to build empathy with your customers is important so you don’t forget who you are building your products for. At Intercom, we’ve learned that having the entire product team participate in research is a key method for building deep empathy with our customers.

This post is based on a talk I delivered at our recent Building Intercom event. You can watch the talk below or keep scrolling if you’d prefer to read.

What even is empathy anyway?

Empathy is often reduced down to the ability to share and feel another’s emotions. However, it’s actually more complex, and can be broken down into three parts:

  1. Perspective taking. Being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. When a customer tells you something is broken, you are able to imagine the impact it’s having on the job they’re trying to get done.
  2. Non-judgmental. You do not look for blame. It does not matter how or what caused the problem, only that you can offer a solution.
  3. Recognising emotions. You realise the emotional impact the problem is having on that person.

This kind of empathic thinking can help you understand the true severity of a problem, it can lead to more natural support conversations, and help you write better support content. It can also help your team stay dialled into the needs of your customers, and most importantly, remind you there are human consequences to the technology you’re building.

Having a good understanding of your customer and their problems is the responsibility of everyone who is contributing ideas about how a product will work. Otherwise, the opinions and ideas that you share are based on assumptions. Assumptions are the kryptonite of product teams. No matter your role, your perspective and input will always be weakened by lack of evidence, and the decisions you make are immediately higher in risk if they are not informed by facts about your customers.

“User research is the Lasso of Truth for product teams”

Companies like InVision and Airbnb promote empathy through design tools such as, a guide to design practices, and Another Lens, a set of questions that aim to help you balance your bias, consider the opposite and embrace a growth mindset. Facebook encourages engineers building for emerging markets to experience their mobile products via 2G to understand the impact of a slow mobile connection. The Fitbit design team has literally run marathons and gone on highly restrictive diets to better understand the challenge of changing your health and fitness behaviour. Riot Games only hire experienced video game players because not only do they understand gamers, they actually think like their customers.

Building empathy with your customers through research

User research such as this is the Lasso of Truth for product teams. It crushes assumptions and reduces risk through the creation of a shared understanding of the customer. Exposure to these customer insights can lead to some level of empathy, but no matter how well a researcher can communicate these insights, teams empathise more when they hear or see customers in action.

Observing research is often perceived as a distraction from doing real work like coding or designing. However, as a researcher I’ve seen first-hand the positive impact of giving engineers an opportunity to listen to customers describe how they work, and observe them using the actual products the engineers are building.

When we were redesigning the Intercom Messenger, we conducted regular user research that was moving us towards the goal of creating a messenger that worked for businesses and end-users alike. For many members of the Messenger product team, these studies were the first time they had the opportunity to hear and observe real end-users interacting with the Messenger. The research provided us with valuable insights about how people interacted with the Messenger, and almost immediately, we had a mini-revelation.

People thought some of our messages were pop-up advertisements. ?

The whole team was able to observe people, almost on reflex, closing our messages as they browsed the test website. The team were there to hear people talk about their irritation when these pop-ups took over their screen, a complete shock to the team. We had never considered that our Messenger was eliciting that old affliction, banner blindness.

Following this revelation we discussed the findings as a team, and agreed this Messenger needed to offer the right level of disruption for our customers, and give end-users more control over when they would see messages. Our designer, Julien, worked on a revised solution and we began building and testing a range of new message types and sizes, as well as different ways for people to preview the content of the message. Our engineers on the team were able to fully understand why they were building what they were building, and to clearly articulate the inspiration and decision making process for the changes to our Messenger.

Later the team was able to observe the positive impact on the end-user behaviour. People were no longer closing the messages automatically, and instead were opening them or reading them when they were ready. There was no more irritation or frustration, and the team was able to witness that change first-hand.

The impact of taking part in research for the Messenger team was huge:

  1. It motivated the team towards a common goal.
  2. It built empathy with our customer’s customers.
  3. It led to a better shared understanding and more engagement with the research insights across all disciplines.
  4. It was confidence building. The team knew that they were making the right product decisions.

Create opportunities to build your empathy

Even if you don’t have opportunities to take part in research, you can make a conscious effort to remind yourself who you are building your products for. Here are some other empathy building methods you can try:

  • Consume customer insights. Both qualitative and quantitative. Put time aside to read those research reports, or attend those presentations. Be curious, ask questions.
  • Map the customer experience. Collaborate deeply with your team to combine all of your domain and customer knowledge. Activities like this lead to a shared understanding of your customer’s experiences, often with useful outputs like a customer journey map. This might seem like a daunting activity but there are lots of great guides online about how to run an empathy and user journey mapping workshop.
  • Perspective taking. Play the role of a new customer and learn how to use your product for the first time. Critically evaluate this experience by putting yourself into the mind of your customer. Walkthrough your product (or design ideas) step by step, screen by screen. Ask yourself: would this all make sense to a new customer? You can also try a cognitive walkthrough, where you evaluate the “happy path” of your product.
  • Provide customer support. Down tools on a typical work day and answer customer support conversations. Help your customers solve the problems and answer the questions they have right now. You may even discover that a bug you deemed trivial was causing a bigger problem than you initially thought.
  • Become a customer. Use your product in ways that are natural to how your customers might use them. To do this, you need to understand how your customers actually use your product and then try to mimic it as best you can. See the product from the other side. Gain domain knowledge by becoming a user, and using your competitor’s product.
  • Exercise your empathy. Make time and effort to look through another lens, to help balance your bias. Listen to other voices and encourage yourself to think about why design should include everyone.
  • Always be curious. When an opportunity presents itself to talk about your product from a customer’s perspective, take it. If you’re introducing yourself to someone new and you discover they use your product, don’t be afraid to ask them questions.

All of these activities should be considered work because they involve your product and your customers. Ultimately it is your responsibility as a product builder to create these opportunities for yourself. These aren’t activities you schedule once, or on a per project basis. Building your empathy and understanding should be proactive, because just like your product and your technology, your customers and their experiences will keep evolving too.