Practicing User Empathy
Caitlin O'Connor
Caitlin O'Connor

Practicing User Empathy

Caitlin O'Connor, Director of Product Management

The term is fairly self-explanatory, but in a product context, user empathy means attempting to deeply understand your users’ motivations; sussing out their needs and desires (that are often subconscious) so you can predict their behavior. It means putting yourself in their shoes as much as possible so you can identify pain points, behavioral patterns, and motivating factors.

Empathy in the context of product can be an abstract thing, but I’ve found that physically putting yourself in the user’s position as much as possible produces a much deeper understanding of their perspective, and helps our team make better decisions.

Here are some ways I use empathy when building products:

Understand the “Who”

Before you put together a strategy, you need to understand who you’re making this for. Build as complete a persona as possible for your target user: what they need, want, and are looking for. It helps validate, frame, and define what you are trying to ultimately deliver.

If you don’t understand who is going to be using the product, how can you be sure you’re prioritizing the most impactful things?

I use empathy mapping as a framework to do this, which takes into account what the user says, thinks, does, and feels. Empathy mapping is a quick way to get an idea about your target user, and my team and I lean on this data along with research (if it’s available), conversations with stakeholders, and industry knowledge to hypothesize about a user’s relationship to the brand or product. We also use this framework to validate our assumptions as we move throughout the process.

When I was working with a team to build the first version of the SoulCycle app, our goal was to optimize the mobile booking experience so that users (riders) could get on a bike as quickly as possible. We already knew that booking bikes was one of the most popular (and stressful!) parts of a customer’s interaction with SoulCycle, and we wanted to identify and address as many pain points as we could.

The team put together an empathy map to help us get started understanding the pre-existing user base. We spoke with riders and stakeholders, and worked behind the check-in desks at studios to understand the booking experience more deeply. Our goal was to have a comprehensive knowledge of a user’s journey both in and out of the studio so that the app could complement the full experience. We worked to learn their rituals, needs, and habits, and tried to replicate them so we could understand first-hand how to resolve these pain points with the product we were building.

Map Out the User Journey

At Prolific, a user’s mobile experience is usually our focus. But it’s important to take into account every touch point a user has when interacting with a brand. By developing a user journey, you understand how the product you’re building fits into the larger user experience, and how it can be most effective and useful.

Recently, I was working with a large financial institution to help redefine their digital experience. A large portion of the user’s interaction was in-person with financial advisors in branches— ie: outside the mobile space. But as the team and I were putting together our digital strategy, we spent a week traveling to different offices to observe user interactions. This was hugely helpful in better understanding how relationships were being built, and allowed us to see how a mobile experience could complement the in-branch experience.

By mapping out the user’s journey, you understand the range of pain points a user may be experiencing. It allows you to prioritize problems and helps create focus as you build.

Empathy For the Business

At Prolific, it is our job to be a partner to the brands we work with. While our goal is always to build intuitive, useful products that really serve the user, it’s also important to maintain empathy for the business. We’ve found that clearly communicating the “why” behind your decision-making (usually that this will help them meet more users’ needs) goes a long way to helping your partners feel more satisfied overall.

Keeping your partners in mind is also helpful when you work to be an extension of a brand’s internal team. At Prolific, this allows us to better collaborate with our partners because we are able to understand the trade-offs and sometimes conflicts between user and business’s goals. It’s our job to listen, understand, and have empathy for both sides.

Most people think you’re either empathetic or you’re not. I don’t think that’s true. I think empathy is a practice— something that can be cultivated and strengthened over time. I’ve been in the product service industry for most of my career, and I’ve found that cultivating empathy has led to strong relationships with my team, our partners, and the end users we’re building products for. I’m not a mind-reader, I’m just curious about how we can make the product better.

Taking an extra step to put yourself in someone else’s place is a great practice in general, but implementing empathetic thinking throughout the strategy, design, and build phases is key to building something you can be proud of.