The Importance of Empathy

The Importance of Empathy

By Lucas Lu. Published on
Feb 2, 2017

Very rarely does the stuff you work on only affects you. Designers’ mockups affect the feasibility and timeline of programming tasks. Product quality will invariably dictate the first impression from early users when presented by a sales person. Feedback from long standing users will make its way back to the product team from sales and marketing department.

As a product designer, a strong sense of empathy is extra important. We need to be able to see the problem we are trying to solve from the end users. Anticipate how long a new design will take so we can prioritize the features. And iterate based on feedback we receive from sales and support people.

How to be more emphatic?

Like most things in entrepreneurship, empathy is best learned by doing. I don’t believe that you either have empathy or you don’t. One can optimize their chance to become more emphatic. It’s worth thinking up ways to maximize your chance of experiencing the world from someone else's perspective

Finding Clarity

Design can be a messy process. As a designer, you’re in a continuous journey of finding clarity in ambiguity. Before you have product market fit, all you have is a set of hypothesis and assumptions. Some of them might work, most of them won’t. The only way to find out if a hypothesis works is by talking to users. Talk to users on the phone, offer them coffee or lunch, and go to the same trade shows. Do whatever it takes to be close to your customers. The more you learn about the challenges faced by end users, the more likely you are to create a product that solves a real problem.

Of course, insights can also come from your existing team. Communicate with marketing people to learn about reactions from top-of-funnel prospects. Speak with sales and customer support to hear about feedback from existing users.

Working with Engineers

This one doesn’t mean that designers should learn how to code, although that can be very useful. Designers should be aware and understand the challenges faced by every software engineer. Engineers are the most valuable and expensive asset to a tech company. Everything they do is very expensive. Ideally, the company should have a funnel-shaped process with a wide head on top and a very narrow body. You may have 10, 100, or 1000 different design iterations, and you only want one or two engineering iterations.

As a designer, you should work closely with an engineer on the same project. Observe the things she works on and ask lots of questions. Very soon, you will begin to realize that adding a simple input box might mean writing 100 new lines of code across different files. If you’re not sure how long something will take, by default assume it will take a long time. And let the engineer tell you otherwise. Although designers are not expected to be able to code, I do think there’s value in understanding the high level concepts in programming. Try to read up on concepts such as database, frameworks, modules, controllers and views. It will help you communicate with engineers better, but more importantly it makes you appreciate software development from a brand new perspective.

Startups Make You More Emphatic

In the early days of most startups, you’re wearing many hats across many different domains. You might be out meeting customers during the day and design the product until midnight. Out of necessity, you’re forced to do things that you’re not good at. Most designers aren’t marketers or sales people. Once you have managed online ad campaigns or picked up the phone to do cold-calls, you will know how hard those things are. In a larger company where it has dedicated marketing and sales people, you will be able to emphasize with what they do daily and come up with creative ways to help them perform their job better.

On Earning Trust

The feeling of connectedness among team members is a very powerful force. I believe that teams can function at the highest level when each member feels like others have their back. The team shares a mutual trust and respect that permeate the way they collaborate, make decisions and give each other feedback. But trust is earned, not given. To earn trust from others, you need to show that you’ve listened to their ideas and sought to understand the world from their shoes. To connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling. This is the moment when it is valuable to add someone to the team who has worked in many teams or startup experience. They’ve been inside the ring and they know what’s like to get punched in the face.