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Technology companies have a tendency towards the quantitative. We like to measure things. And there is a lot that can be measured from page load times to net promoter scores. Even in board meetings the question “have we A/B tested that” is common. But the quantitative can only take you so far. 

One good definition of empathy is “experiencing emotions that match another person’s emotions.” Or put differently, the way to “measure user frustration” (where frustration is clearly an emotion) is to experience that emotion oneself. There are two ways of accomplishing that: first, observe a user directly and second, put yourself in the user’s position by actually using the product. Surprisingly few companies do both of these well.

User observation sounds easy but is in fact quite hard. If you want to know how to do it well, I suggest reading “Customers Included” by Mark Hurst. Mark describes a method known as a listening lab, in which you observe one customer at a time without guidance to create as natural a product interaction as possible. There are no task prompts asking the user to take a specific action. Just the occasional reminder to verbalize what they are thinking.

In order for this to actually result in empathy it is essential to have as many people in the company either directly observe or at a minimum watch video of the observation. A written summary by a user experience researcher circulated to the team does not do the job. Why? Because the scientific evidence shows that empathy works primarily through reading facial expressions and body posture.

Another legitimate and important way to experience the same emotion as customers and thus develop empathy is to actually use the product oneself. I am often surprised how many people inside of companies – and for that matter on the board of companies – don’t use the product. And that includes every aspect of a product, including how a new user would experience it, e.g. go through the on-boarding flow yourself. I strongly recommend that everyone inside of the company do this on a semi-regular basis but especially anyone in the leadership team (which should give you empathy not just for the customer but also your team).

Now some people may say that’s all well for consumer products but we have a B2B product or a developer product so this doesn’t apply to us. Well it does! Developers are humans. People working inside of companies are humans. They experience frustration just as much. And you need to observe them and put yourself in their shoes.

None of this means that you shouldn’t A/B test or have other quantitative measure. But all of those will mean very little if you don’t have the qualitative context that only observation and usage can provide. Empathy is central to product development.

If you are interested in reading more about qualitative measurement of Product development the following are some excellent collections:
1. Empathy is everything project
2. Whitney Hess’ blog

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