The Role of Empathy in Product Building

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Startups often begin with a strong initial vision, something that makes leaving their day jobs and investing their time and capital worth it. Usually, their vision involves a product that makes people’s lives better and/or easier in some way. As product developers, it’s our job to take that vision and turn it into something that is functional and scalable in the real world. In other words, something that people will want to adopt.

Design thinking principles in the early planning stages

In the early planning stages, design thinking principles help take us from a vision to a well-defined product with a target market. First we define the problem we want to solve. Then we develop solutions based on the habits and preferences of the people for whom we’re solving it. Careful research takes us pretty far here. But it’s empathy that drives real innovation when it comes to product development.

Empathy is so important to this process, in part, because we must immerse ourselves in the user’s experience in order to understand how they would want to use what we’re building. What are their needs, challenges, habits, values? This goes beyond creating archetypes for potential users. By creating fuller scenarios around possible use cases and exploring potential hesitations or barriers to use, we can really start to envision how our target market might interact with the product.

Empathizing with the end user does much more than answering the big questions

Empathizing with the end user doesn’t just help us answer the big questions about product-market fit or how this product might shape an industry or change lives. It also makes us think carefully about the user flow and make UX decisions with the user’s preferences front and center. We’ve all encountered apps that don’t meet our needs because of poor UX decisions—apps that load too slowly or have too many distracting features. Thinking about detailed scenarios in which people will use the product also helps us to prioritize features and identify potential frustrations before we enter the development phase.

Applying this kind of detailed thinking to product development is easier said than done. Even tech companies with a plethora of capacity and resources occasionally release products that are unpleasant, overly demanding, or too clunky to use habitually. In the end, it’s the design thinking practitioners who take the time to understand their end-users who will develop the most successful products.