Empathy and Product Management: A Guide to Better Serving Your Customers

Empathy and Product Management: A Guide on Better Serving Your Customers

Zight | August 13, 2019 | 12 min read time

Article Last Updated: June 28, 2023

Empathy and Product Management: A Guide to Better Serving Your Customers

Filing taxes in early 2019 came with a lot of substantial changes, and neither my accountant nor I were 100% ready for it when the time arrived. It turns out the company whose software they used weren’t prepared either. Each appointment went from my questions and concerns to the accountant searching for the right element in the tax software and ultimately calling up tech support to hunt for an answer.

It went that way for many of their first clients of the year, so software updates led not only to an unhappy accountant but potentially unhappy customers for him too. That’s going to cause a tough conversation when it comes time to renew the software license.

There’s one tactic that the software company and its product management team can use to address the issue and start solving some of that frustration: empathy.

Product Management and Empathy Combine for Better Project Development.

Empathy is our ability to understand and relate to someone else on a core level. You’re working to understand their feelings and thoughts by taking on their perspective. The software company is going to need to say something along the lines of I can see why that’s a problem, and it must have been frustrating. How can we solve it?

The same tool is available to every product manager and company on the planet. Empathy is your go-to for understanding where your customer is coming from and the needs they’re trying to solve. It has slowed moved into conversations among UX and UI teams but can and should expand into the broader product conversation.

For product managers, that includes direct interaction with customers when you’re supporting a sale, helping, and looking at where to grow your company next. When you’re empathetic, it’s easier to get the help you need from customers. It’s more than just nodding your head and waiting for a chance to speak — it’s about listening for gems.

To listen correctly, you need to know what to listen for, and there’s a great tool designed specifically for understanding areas of significant impact. Let’s get right to your map so you can build better products that your customers love.

Starting with Empathy Mapping

Empathy mapping has become a new first step for some designers because of the way it helps set a mood and focus for an entire project. The exercise helps to visualize the behaviors and attitudes of the user in a way UX teams can follow and reference when thinking about how and why a user interacts with their products. Product managers and teams create these maps and then can share them with everyone else working on a product to keep the right perspective in mind.

Another hope is that an empathy map will identify gaps in current personas, profiles, and other segments using user data. It’ll establish what you have or lack to understand user needs.

Empathy maps are squares divided into four quadrants concerning the user (usually represented by a circle in the middle), and typically the sections are labeled:

  1. Says
  2. Thinks
  3. Does
  4. Feels

Some versions may introduce additional elements such as the Pain and Gain thoughts of the user, though these are typically separate from any of the core four functional areas.

Final design depends on your target and how much space you need to define them.

1. Says

The Says quadrant is filled in with all the things your customer will say out loud in a panel discussion, focus group, or usability study. You want verbatim items whenever possible because the specific word choice is important. You want to know if someone is worried about a service being “unreliable” versus “late” because they’ve got different gravity.

2. Thinks

Your Thinks quadrant is designed to capture the thoughts the user has during the experience and how they can shape attitude. It’s easy to get the same results here when you ask people what they were thinking during the process, but there are some elements people tend not to vocalize. Someone who seems frustrated but says the product is “fine” and then says that it doesn’t meet their needs has another issue going on that they’re not expressing. Did they find it frustrating to use? Could the software make them feel dumb for getting lost during a step? Are they bored halfway through?

On the other hand, it might make them feel great in a way they weren’t expecting. This can take some time to discover, even for themselves, so it’s important to try and understand the experiences and thoughts someone might have but not want to say in polite/mixed/new company.‍

3. Does

Now, the Does quadrant is specific to the actions that users take. Think about what they physically do. If they’re navigating a software product, you not only want to track mouse and eye movements on the screen but look at what they do with their bodies. Do they have to keep looking down at the keyboard because the key binding you use is new or complicated? Are they constantly switching between the keyboard and mouse? (Things like this may help you refine how a process is achieved to speed things up or make them less disjointed.)

Include related steps they take. So, if you’re an e-commerce company, you want to look beyond just buying on your site. Do they search for you on Google? Price shop with your competitors? Look to see who is wearing your brand on Instagram? See if a favorite YouTuber or podcast offers a promo code? Do they read your shipping information before or after they add their first product to the cart?

Also, adapt to match the experience level of your users.

4. Feels

The Feels section is all about the emotional state of your user while they’re interacting with you or accomplishing a task. How do they feel learning, doing, and after completing whatever you’re observing?

There are a variety of major emotion categories, and you’ll want to see how these apply to your product. Enterprise solutions, for instance, have a lot of fear to contend with, though some designers and developers overlook this. The user is afraid they’ll do something wrong and mess things up. The buyer is afraid they’re picking the wrong product and it’ll tank their budget. IT is afraid that your system isn’t built well and could introduce errors or security risks. HR is afraid that it could capture employee data and make it visible to the wrong people.

It’s important to remember that you’re building a product for a specific set of users, but it generally has a larger sphere of impact and influence. Work to discover these tendrils and ask the emotional questions for as far as they reach.

Beyond fear, product developers will want to look at joys, anxieties, frustrations, confusion, and many more.

If you need a guide, start with Pixar’s characters: Sadness, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Joy.

Those characters are also a good reminder that you shouldn’t aim for a single emotion to be running the show the entire time. People are going to be using your product when they’re in a great mood and when they’re in a terrible mood. The more you can do to highlight the good and remove the frustrations, the better (typically).

Once you’ve built your empathy map, you’ll have a smart guide to understanding how your customer feels both as an individual and as the customer persona, plus get ideas of how to refine products and marketing to keep things going smoothly.

Defining Success through your Customers

We really like empathy maps because they provide a consistent point of view to return to during UX and UI development for products. Everyone can get on the same page when they know who they’re creating for, and the more detail you provide the easier it is to back up innovative ideas with relevant research and data.

These tools communicate to each other who you want to help and why. The picture is especially clear because it is guided by users themselves. By incorporating everything they share, you’re able to tackle some bias that any individual team member may have (and we all have bias), highlight if you’re focused on the wrong aspect of a problem, understand what is guiding user behavior, and create a more meaningful innovation.

The empathy map should be distilled into user goals as soon as your research is done.

This template from Conceptboard is just one of many styles to help you explore further.

Find out exactly what they’re after and apply the empathy information to discover the best way to accomplish those goals. When you can meet the objective in the way that the customer wants, you’ve found success.

A Very Brief Note

The one caveat is that you might have to dig beneath the surface to get the best results. Let’s say your customer wants to accomplish a repetitive manual task through automation and you build a product to do just that. The reason behind this might not impact how you automate, but it could impact your displays and future work.

Someone who is afraid of things going wrong will prefer a message that lets them know “Data Import Successful!” to feel relief. They know things are okay and can move forward without feeling the need to double check or go back over the process again.

Or you could have a different user wants automation to remove a boring task and get started on what’s next. They could prefer you to only give them a message about the data import if there’s an issue, and instead move them to the next screen when things go fine. The less you interrupt, the faster they’re done and ready to move to a more enjoyable task.

It’s a small detail, but it makes a world of difference to each of those users.

Using the 5 Whys in Product Management

Applying the empathy map doesn’t always go smoothly, or it may not quite give you what you need when you’re looking at iterative product development. There’s a root of an issue that remains elusive and will continue to cause issues until you discover it.

If this happens, turn your empathy map data into a question or concern. Then, keep asking “why” to drill down and find out what’s at the bottom, causing problems all the way to the top. MindTools has a phenomenal video explaining 5Ys from the user perspective:

YouTube video

At its core is the element of a “counter-measure” instead of a traditional solution. The difference is that you want a countermeasure designed to prevent the problem from happening again. The MindTools example touches on software people aren’t using because it requires information they don’t have. The countermeasure here is creating a way for people to use that software when they lack the information, either by editing the software itself or by creating placeholder information they can fill in when things are missing.

Thaisa Fernandes has great thoughts on specifically applying these to the product management and development space, including the creation of your team around a Five Whys master who runs meetings designed to get down to the issue. The most important part of that role is having someone with the authority to decide but who still has enough time in their schedule to make all of the meetings you need.

To use the method successfully, you’ll need to have meetings specifically designed to address issues. Your Five Whys master should lead these and it’s generally a promising idea if they’re the lead project manager because they’ll be most invested in the project. Managers usually have interactions with development teams as well as customers, so they are able to make the most of the empathy map data as well as the technical side of your product development.

Five Whys can be used to work on user errors, sales issues, and or customer-specific products. If you are consistently getting trouble tickets on the same topic, your team might be able to determine where the software doesn’t flow like the user thinks it would or if things are different from your training manual.

When sales has an issue, the 5 Whys might point to a big drop-off in qualified leads moving forward after a demo. Asking the first why could lead you to realizing:

  • That most of your audience says the data isn’t relevant (why 2)
  • Because the demo is static and suited to a different industry (why 3)
  • Because your market research was flawed (why 4)
  • We were wrong in who we assumed needed the solution and would respond to our marketing (why 5)
  • We misunderstood who the problem that we solve impacts

So, all that asking could lead you to understand that you were targeting the wrong group with your marketing. This reverberates up to have you change messaging in campaigns and data as well as in your direct interactions, which could ultimately lead to a sale pitch that closes more often and helps your business.

Building Empathy Directly

If you’re struggling to get there and do this work, or your team starts playing the blame game instead of looking for solid answers to concerns, there are a few things you can do to get people to start building empathy. These tips are best when applied directly to the customer by asking them, but you can also use these internally by having your team roleplay as the customer in various situations.

Keep questions fresh so your customers don’t feel dated.

Here are a few of our favorite:

  1. Look them in the eye: Meet people in-person whenever you can to understand what they’re going through and establish a connection. Building the relationship can help you get more honest responses and help you build out your map. Meeting face-to-face, especially if you’re coming back to this user over time, gives the user/audience more availability to ask, discuss additional items, or other concerns that aren’t always able to be captured in forms. Plus, you can keep an eye on body language and potentially discover disjointed elements and concerns.
  2. Ask honest questions: A benefit of meeting in person is that you get a chance to be honest and ask relevant questions. You can follow-up when you don’t know or want to learn more. Clarifying questions are your big advantages here because it demonstrates that you’re interested in what they say and what to understand to address it. You can run a version of the 5 Whys here, drilling down to their pain. Don’t get aggressive but try active listening.
  3. Be open and genuine: False empathy is easy to spot. If you’re not interested, don’t pretend and try to force it. Find the right person on your team who is interested and ready to meet users where they’re at to discover what’s lurking beneath the surface. The motivation has to be there to benefit the customer, or they’ll be frustrated with you and the process. In this same vein is having an open mind. You have to welcome feedback and info to be empathetic to your audience.

Not sure if you’ve got the right people to do these tasks? Check out this Product Manager Skills Matrix to help flesh out your team and train your product managers right.

Your goal as a product manager is to discover the pain and motivation that are causing people to use your product, or not use them anymore. Working to generate this connection and build empathy helps you look past surface-level information to dive deep into the customer and their mind. It’ll help you determine when things are important, when someone is telling you just what they think you want to hear, and when you’re on the right track.

The best way to be the super sleuth your company demands is to ask “why” and “how” in real ways that help people tell you exactly what you need to know.


Capture Video for Long-Term Help

Want to establish a source of data that can help you build empathy and create ongoing information to help you guide your efforts? Record those conversations and provide direct video clips for each section of your Empathy Map!

Zight (formerly CloudApp) makes this easy with simplified tools for segmenting videos, creating GIFs, and annotating for simple transcripts, subtitles, and more. Get started by grabbing your free trial to record your next customer/user meeting!

Ready to chat with us about how to save time, money and help your team communicate better?