Developing User Empathy


I'm a firm believer that the best product managers understand that mastering the discipline requires deeply excelling at both the art and science of product management. When you start your career in product management you tend to be largely focused on the science: how to effectively do customer research, run an A/B test, manage a sprint, write a spec, and so on. And while those are critically important to being a great product manager, they aren't sufficient. It's those that understand and appreciate the art of product management that do the best. They understand that certain aspects can't be learned by simply reading a set of best practices, taking a class, or applying a technique. They appreciate that certain innate skills and inordinate deliberate practice are necessary to truly excel. I'd put a bunch of aspects of product management into this category: prioritizing a roadmap, effective communication, formulating a vision, negotiating with stakeholders, and team leadership, to name a few. Over time I hope to dive deeper into each of these topics because I think they are so important and often not written about in-detail because the right approach is not easily picked up in a few hours, but instead requires years of focus and effort.

Today I wanted to dive into one such critical aspect of the art behind product management, which is developing user empathy. The reason this is so important is that I've seen product teams who faithfully have run a customer validation exercise and have executed incredibly well against the science of customer validation: identifying the specific target audience, recruiting a critical mass of folks to interview, developing a strong interview guide to answer their most burning questions, and synthesizing the feedback across interviews into a set of product requirements for their next iteration. And yet, the product plans that come out of this process can often be uninspired and little more than a regurgitation of the feedback customers directly gave them on what to develop and how to design their product. Worse, after developing the product directly based on the results of this customer validation process, I've seen products still struggle to find the elusive product/market fit. So what's going on here? To me this speaks to how the science of product management isn't enough to develop compelling products. Instead this is where the art is needed, and specifically in this case what's often missing is a strong dose of user empathy.

Empathy is the ability to understand or feel what another person is experiencing. Or in other words, the ability to walk a mile in another person's shoes. It goes well beyond "gathering their requirements" to truly understanding their hopes, dreams, frustrations, fears, proclivities, and more. It requires us to move past the classic economic view of humans as rational decision-makers to a full acceptance of the emotive and psychological beings we really are. It's this empathy that enables great product managers to really grock the pain points their users are suffering and develop compelling products that truly delight them.

The challenge with developing user empathy is it first requires us to get out of our own heads and our own frame-of-reference that we bring to the world. Since our own sense of perspective drives every one of our daily decisions, it's often challenging to comprehend another person's wildly different outlook on life. Equally challenging in building user empathy is developing a deep appreciation for the depth, breadth, and nuance of human emotions and experiences. It requires us to move beyond the personified emotions so well expressed in Inside Out (joy, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust) to the complexities of real-life: mixed emotions, dissonance, peer pressure, vanity, herd mentality, and so much more.

Some folks have such strong innate emotional intelligence (EQ) that empathy comes incredibly naturally to them. They're the folks you see that seem to get along with everyone, the ones who develop an intimacy with friends and colleagues so effortlessly. The ones who always make you feel understood. The ones that often share that rare insight that you missed when reflecting on someone's behavior. Their innate curiosity and love for other people fuels these capabilities.

But how about for the rest of us? How do we hone our own ability to empathize with our target audience? I'll preface this with saying there is no quick-fix silver-bullet solutions here. While certain techniques like active listening are helpful, it'll take much more than them to truly empathize with your audience. Here are a few approaches on just how to go about developing your empathy.

Total Immersion
There is a reason the expression is walk a mile in another person's shoes, not a foot or a yard. The best way to develop empathy for a specific audience is to truly immerse yourself in their lives or work. Often a 60 or 90-minute interview is far from sufficient to understanding their plight. So find ways to create this total immersion. Day-long shadowing is one such technique. Or actually doing the job or role of the person you're developing products for. Before I led product for LinkedIn Sales Navigator targeted at sales professionals, I had personally gone on dozens of sales calls and helped close some of the largest sales deals at a previous employer, helping me develop a deep understanding of the life of a sales rep. I similarly had my team (product managers, designers, engineers, etc) do a day-long shadowing with our own sales team at LinkedIn to really grock what a day in the life looked like. Immersion techniques, while time-consuming, are a sure-fire way to increase your empathy for a given audience.

Develop your Mindfulness Practice
While total immersion works, ideally we want to build our innate skills for empathy to enable us to empathize with far less effort. To do this we'll need to address both of the challenges of doing so: appreciating the depth, breadth, and nuance of human emotions as well as truly lifting ourselves out of our own world-view into another's. Mindfulness is a great set of techniques to help with the former. Appreciating your own breadth of thoughts and feelings goes a long way in your ability to appreciate anothers. And that's exactly what mindfulness helps you do. Mindfulness is simply a set of techniques that enable you to focus your attention on the internal and external experiences you are having in the present moment. It enables you to act as a rational observer to your own thoughts and emotions so you can be aware of what you're thinking, what impact external factors are having on your thoughts and emotions, and even just an appreciation of the range of emotions you experience. For those skeptical of mindfulness I'd say this: the high EQ folks we all know do this so effortlessly. Mindfulness is simply a form of deliberate practice for the rest of us. New to mindfulness? Try out either the Headspace or 10% Happier apps for a bite-sized, approachable introduction.

Focus on Building Rapport With Your Colleagues
One of the observations I've had is the product managers most in-tune with their target audience are also the ones with the strongest relationships with their colleagues. This is because the same empathy they use to empathize with their target audience they apply to empathizing with their colleagues. Building strong relationships and rapport with your various team members then becomes an excellent way to practice empathy on a daily basis that pays dividends by not only greasing the wheels of team dynamics but also enabling you to build better products. To do so, make sure your colleagues feel heard in every interaction, find simple ways to increase the meaning and happiness they derive from their work, and take a curiosity in their work and personal lives. You can't end up doing any of these things well without learning to empathize with each and every one of them.

Explore your Passion for the Humanities: Music, Film, Literature
The humanities are often described as the study of how people process and document the human experience, making it so relevant to developing empathy. Steve Jobs so often talked about how at Apple they tried to be at the intersection of liberal arts and technology. And what he knew so well is that an appreciation of the arts is really an appreciation of humanity and the human condition. Some might suggest the study of psychology as a more direct way to understand humanity. While certainly helpful, I find that simply a rational study of various psychological principles is far from sufficient to really appreciate them. It's the classic story of show not tell. And the humanities are a far better way to show and experience those various principles. You may notice your most well-read colleagues tend to have a stronger EQ as well. I personally love music and spend a ton of my time immersed in it. Find your passion and dedicate time to it. Not just for fun. But for improving your own empathy.

A Shortcut: Build For Yourself
I should call out there is indeed one shortcut to all of this, which is developing products for yourself. In this case you are your own target audience and you have had depth of experiences in the problem space you are attacking, making your own world view aligned with your end users and enabling you to extensively leverage your own product intuition to guide the roadmap and development of the product. Paul Graham at Y Combinator consistently encouraged folks to do this because it certainly had the highest chances of succeeding since you take out so much of the risk associated with empathy and ultimately product/market fit. You still need to be careful in ensuring the target audience is in-fact like you and ultimately a sufficiently large audience that is worth addressing. But it certainly helps shortcut a lot of the challenges of empathy in the earliest stages.

I hope this motivated the importance of empathy in product management and gave you some life-long habits you can build to develop your own empathy.
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