Design-driven organizations excel in the market because they’re able to create a connection with their customers, building trust and loyalty over time. And the core skill helping them win hearts and minds is empathy.
Empathy is the ability to understand the reasoning and motivation behind someone’s behavior and feelings. The key to design thinking is knowing the context and mindset your customers bring to their experience of your product or service. This knowledge helps you diagnose your current solutions and come up with new solutions that resonate with your customers and address their needs.
Think about giving a gift to a loved one — how much easier is it to choose a gift when you really “get” that person? How much more meaningful is it when the recipient senses the thought behind it? We want this same connection with our customers.
The key to design thinking is knowing the context your customers bring to their experience of your product.
However, when faced with project deadlines, technical constraints, internal politics, and a lack of direct access to customers, it becomes harder to access your innate capacity for empathy. You’re inclined to optimize for your own experience, insider’s view, and subject matter expertise (and take shortcuts that reduce workload). That’s why Cooper Professional Education courses teach empathy tools that check the tendency to be self-directed and reorient you to your customer’s story and experience.
Empathy in action
Our designers have seen the impact empathy can have on a team’s perspective, collaboration, and output. We’ve worked with many companies whose product teams express frustration with their customers, asking, “Why do our customers have so much difficulty using our software effectively when it’s all so straightforward?”
On one such project, we worked with a software product team building systems for monitoring data center applications. Our design team went out to data centers to conduct research interviews with users, gaining a deeper understanding of their work responsibilities and environments as well as the ways in which they collaborated to solve very complicated problems.
This in-person research enabled us to talk to the product team about the tasks and systems their users had to juggle, the complexity of their work processes, and the gaps in the overall flow. We established a maturity model for organizations monitoring their data centers as well as personas to represent users working within those organizations. By crafting stories about their target users to build understanding, we showed the product team how much more their software could do to help their users progress through each level of that maturity model. And by sharing these models and stories throughout our client’s organization, we used empathy to create alignment across operational silos — from product development to marketing — and help them coordinate efforts to address their customers’ goals and needs.
How empathy solves business problems
People approach new challenges with personal bias — and your team is no exception. If you don’t empathize with your customer, you’ll create a solution with bias baked in. For example, if you’re a tech company, your team has a deeper technological understanding than the population at large and might build a solution that requires technical expertise. Or, if you’re a financial services company, your financially savvy team members might assume your customers have more financial literacy than they actually do.
But you can break this pattern! Building a solution for your customers — whether you’re creating a product, service, process, or experience — requires big, strategic team decisions as well as hundreds of micro-decisions by individuals along the way. For those big decisions, empathy tools can help your cross-functional teams work together more effectively. In-depth customer understanding is a North Star that disparate teams can use to calibrate and guide their work.
If you don’t empathize with your customer, you’ll create a solution with bias baked in.
The target user’s mindset, motivations, goals, and needs should come into play when deciding how to sequence a process, present information onscreen, or handle a customer call. Team members can use empathy tools to evaluate new ideas, using the “wetware” of their brains to run simulations of how a customer might respond to a process or feature.
Tools for exercising empathy
Here are three simple tools you can use to help your team members flex their empathy muscles:
To understand your users or customers, your team needs to go out and talk to them. Research interviews give you the opportunity to discover your customers’ perspectives and experiences. Approach research interviews with curiosity — focus on getting to know participants’ thought processes. What’s important to them? How do they make decisions? Set aside the tendency to propose solutions and focus on understanding your customers so better solutions can emerge.
Personas or other user models
Following user research, share your findings with the rest of your team and the broader organization. Distill the patterns you observed and things you learned into actionable tools. Personas are archetypes that represent the various behavioral patterns and mental models discovered in research. Presenting your findings through these human characters enables everyone to empathize with target users and consider those with different ways of approaching your product or service. They’re especially crucial for eliminating bias, when target users have vastly different backgrounds, behaviors, and mental models than your team members.
Stories or journey maps
As humans, we tend to organize information into stories, assembling facts and figures into our own narrative. Framing your plans around your customer’s story stokes empathy. Evaluate whether your product or service makes your customer the hero of his or her own story. By creating a map of your customer’s current journey, you can better understand what’s missing or broken; by writing a story of your customer’s future experience, you can prototype ways to make it ideal. Stories and journey maps ensure that your team’s work supports a cohesive and compelling customer experience.
Applying empathy in your organization
These empathy tools and other design thinking methods will help shift your team’s perspective to that of your customer so that employees can generate ideas tailored to your customer and make decisions that enhance rather than compromise your customer’s experience.
Want to learn more about how to apply these empathy tools to your work?
- Our Design Research Techniques course offers practice conducting research interviews and constructing personas based on findings.
- Our Service Design Immersive course teaches ways to use stories and journey maps to understand your customers’ current experience and prototype their future experience.
This article is part of Cooper Professional Education’s “Five Principles of Design-Driven Organizations” series. Read the next pieces in the series, on collaboration, creativity, experimentation, and a holistic mindset.
Jim Dibble is an Associate Director at Cooper Professional Education.