This piece originally appeared on Forbes Tech Council.
We hear a lot about “customer empathy” these days. Whether it’s in candidate interviews, design discussions or product management meetings, it’s become more critical than ever to prioritize the customer as a core part of company culture. That’s not surprising because as technological advances, frameworks, and APIs continue to trivialize previous technical challenges to just a few lines of code, company leaders know that focusing on customer experience is their biggest strategic differentiator.
The problem with customer empathy is that it’s a phrase people throw around rather flippantly without ever defining it. They don’t tell you what it is or what they mean. They just know they want it.
So let’s start by first talking about the outcome of having customer empathy. For this, we will look to one of the best product leaders of our time: Steve Jobs. He collected decades of experience from seeing the world and building companies. He saw where industries would go and how technology would evolve. He identified customer needs and wants before they even existed. He drew on all of this to make products that created an emotional impact alongside a functional effect on a customer’s life.
That emotional impact on a consumer’s life gets to the heart of customer empathy. The iPhone showed us the long-term evolution of our interaction with technology, not where it was or even where it would be soon. That world-changing product was essentially the sum of consumer needs. Jobs didn’t just solve a functional problem by creating an easy-to-use smartphone; he also delivered an emotional delight by tying it to the familiar iPod experience and the growing need to use the internet on the go — all via enjoyable touchscreen technology. And he was able to replicate these enjoyable experiences many times over because what delights people diminishes over time as those experiences become table stakes, like the multitouch screen. This constant delight appealed to how people felt, not just what they needed.
We have to think about how a product makes people feel. Sometimes it can be something that’s purely functional like Google Search. Changes to that wildly utilitarian product can have an emotional impact because people just want to find results. Changes to products with a deep emotional connection like Spotify have to account for those feelings. Both of them have to understand where the product is going, but it takes an understanding of people — and empathy for them — to know how to address what the customer needs and feels. And we need to be able to understand where to take the product into the future based on both of those. That journey isn’t always an evolution of the sum of its existing parts. It can go in a radically new direction.
Sometimes this can be incredibly jarring. You can look at massive product redesigns and see both a graveyard and a proliferation of brand new use cases. When Snap decided to redesign its app, it was a bet on the future of the app’s usage. But the emotional outcry of influencers forced the company to take a step back and reconsider. When Twitter changed its timeline to one with an algorithmic feed, there was a backlash. When Digg went through a tremendous redesign, it caused trouble for the platform.
It wasn’t necessarily the functional changes of these products that defined the outcome. These products are all near and dear to the hearts of every user and customer. Sometimes companies can anticipate the reaction but know what is best for the customer. But sometimes they miscalculate. In the end, these were company-altering decisions that required having that emotional connection with the user, and they succeeded or failed based on it.
Customer empathy is about being attuned to that emotional connection. It allows you to predict the emotional impact of any change, big or small. To establish that connection, you should intimately understand the audience. Your first goal is usually to get a feel for who the customer is when working on the product. You should have a sense of curiosity around your customers and an understanding of how they feel about the product and why. You should also make sure to understand the emotion behind their feedback to understand what their needs really are.
Here are some traits you should aim to possess when building products with customer empathy in mind:
- Knowing and discovering the difference between what customers want to get done and how they want to feel.
- A deep appreciation for the customer experience.
- The desire to discover features that come together to drive that customer experience.
- The ability to predict an emotional response to change.
- An openness to rapidly iterate those features based on customer feedback.
We want customers to be delighted by the products we make, and making customer empathy a core part of our process delivers that delight. By having empathy for your customers’ emotional needs in addition to addressing their functional needs, you can deliver a product experience that’s memorable for them and genuinely differentiating for you.
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