Design thinking and empathy go hand in hand. Empathizing with customers is the only way to understand their needs and challenges, and devise ways for your products, services and projects to address them. In other words, empathy is great fodder for innovation.
Sound simple enough? In theory, it should be. But figuring out how to empathize with customers doesn’t come naturally to every team. Interacting with customers in their own environment can be uncomfortable and time-consuming. It might mean embracing skills you don’t often use.
Here are some techniques that can help you get the most from your efforts to engage:
Observe users in their natural habitat. To empathize with customers, you’ll need to pay attention to their behavior. Ideally, you’ll find a way to watch them in the place most relevant to the problem you’re solving. For example, if you want to create a better banking experience, sit in the lobby of your bank and watch what customers do. If you are building a new piece of software, observe customers using the existing technology to see what works and what shortcuts they’ve created to get around what doesn’t. You don’t even need to talk to them in this step; it’s most important is to watch, take notes and try to learn from what you observe.
Document their day. If you can’t follow a customer around all day, ask them to record their experience through photos or videos. Have them capture every important step in the relevant activity, including everyone they interact with and key milestones or points of frustration. Ask them to share their documentation and tell you what it all means. This combination of visual elements and their own interpretation can help you see the experience through their eyes and identify opportunities for innovation.
Act like a novice. Your customers are the experts—even if you’re the company’s CEO or the smartest developer on your team. In other words, don’t lecture, explain or offer corrections. Instead, put yourself in the mindset of a beginner, listen to what customers say and use their insights to learn something new.
Ask why. When a customer reports an event, a feeling or an obstacle, ask them to elaborate. Ask why they think it happened. Keep asking “why” in response to their answers, until you get to the root cause. It can take four or five whys to get there, but the journey is worth it.
Don’t lead. If you want honest feedback, you need to ask neutral, open-ended questions. That means, instead of asking what they love or hate about the product, ask what they think of it. Avoid yes/no or highly specific questions and encourage customers to tell stories about their experiences to bring life to their answers. When we ask neutral questions, customers feel free to tell you how they really feel. That’s where the true insights emerge.
Go to extremes. The best insights don’t always come from average users. Novices and experts can provide unusual information, as can people who either adore or abhor your products or services. Empathizing with someone who hates what you do isn’t easy, but their feedback can be the most valuable insights you’ll find.
Need more tips on empathizing with your user? Read our post on The 4 Mindsets of Design Thinking
Learn how to enable innovation skill-building at scale here or download our free ebook Design Thinking 101.