Building empathy with your users

When you’re absorbed in code and logical problem solving, it becomes easy to forget that other people are going to use the product you’re building. For all the hard, technical skills involved in software development, there’s something to be said for the role of empathy.

It’s important to remember your users when designing, creating and updating software. The more of a connection you maintain with them, the surer you can be that you’re solving their problem. And empathy is a great way to strengthen that connection.

So, how can you build empathy with your users?

What is empathy?

Empathy is a core element of emotional intelligence. It’s the ability to recognise, understand, and vicariously experience the feelings and thoughts of another. Building empathy means building the ability to relate to each other and make strong connections.

When you have strong empathy skills, you can put yourself in another’s place to gain insight into their needs and experiences. But how does that relate to software development?

Alongside logical skill requirements, software development has a human side. It’s people making programs to help other people.

The importance of empathy in software development manifests in two places. It lets you empathise with your colleagues, making for a more harmonious office. And it lets you empathise with your users, too.

Why is building empathy with your users important?

Building empathy with your users creates a human touch and connection, which in turn means a better relationship with your users.

This is because with empathy you can gain a clear view of user pain-points and the problem they need to solve. Because you’re using empathy, you gain a deeper understanding of what your program needs to be to meet your user’s needs. In short, you make sure that your software serves the user in the best possible ways.

So, having this insight into the user’s view of your product helps with designing the user experience.

Building empathy will also help when you receive user feedback. With strong empathy skills, you can identify the driving force behind feedback (both good and bad). You can work out why the user is upset, or happy, and adapt to what’s working well and what isn’t.

How to cultivate your empathy

Empathy is all about making connections. It’s about generating understanding by putting yourself in the situation of your users. Building empathy with your users means taking time to make those connections and get into that head space.

So, here a few ways you can start to build empathy.

•       Meet and talk to your users and target audience

It’s easy to leave interacting with the customer to your sales and customer service teams. But when you do this, you don’t build a relationship with your users. Everything you do, all your understanding of them, comes from hearsay and guesses.

So, interact with your target users. Meet them, talk to them, and take time to focus on their ambitions and their company. (Put your brand or your goals on the back burner for a moment.)

•       Write effective user stories

Once you’ve taken time to get to know your users, write user stories. User stories encourage you to think of things from the point of view of your target audience.

When you write user stories, you put yourself in the place of your user and make a record of what they need, so that you can refer back to it as needed.

•       Seek feedback

Building empathy with your users means inviting every opportunity to understand them. That is, to discover their thoughts and feelings about your product. Asking for feedback is a good way to get that insight.

It can also help to dive deeper into your feedback and engage with your users. If they have left feedback, you can follow up with them. Be willing to engage in conversations about what they like and dislike. 

Ask open questions — don’t try to guess their answers. Empathy means listening to your users and taking interest in their point of view. So, be patient and don’t force desired answers from them.

•       Eat your own dog food

Finally, practice dogfooding. That is, using your software yourself. Using your software puts you in the role of the user, and so gives you first-hand experience of what it is like to use your program.

So, you can empathise with your current users and squash previously undetected issues.

Building empathy

It’s folly to not recognise the importance of soft skills in any role — software development and product management included.

Software development is a human enterprise — humans making things for other humans. Empathy makes sure the human element isn’t forgotten. So, building empathy with your users is a worthy use of your time and effort.

Useful links

Designing the user experience

What is a user story and why should you be writing them?

Are you eating your own dog food?