The empathy gap is real in product development
October 25, 2021

The empathy gap is real in product development

by Brian de Haaff

Some words are used interchangeably. Take “emotion” and “feeling.” Emotions are sparked in the unconscious mind — fear, anger, surprise, happiness. Feelings are what happens when we integrate emotions into our consciousness, layering our personal history as a lens. So while emotions might be somewhat universal, our feelings are unique to us. We all feel differently.

Product managers are innately curious about what others feel — you have the passion to understand problems and the drive to find real solutions.

The importance of empathy in product development has become quite a popular topic these days. I have written a lot about it as have others. But one thing that often gets missed is how hard and exhausting empathy can be. Feeling what others feel is intense and a bit esoteric — most product managers I know struggle with it.

I was reminded of this when speaking with a seasoned VP of product recently. They shared challenges with dysfunctional cross-team communication and a temperamental CEO who kept changing directions. The product managers on the team had many years of experience but rarely spoke with customers. When something new was finally released after months of work, it quickly became clear that only a few people actually found it useful.

In an environment like the one I just described, you can see a few issues. First, that years of experience alone is not a proxy for empathy. And yes, it is true that depending on your product and who you serve, it can be very hard to imagine what users experience. But you never will if you do not try. Second, internal conflict will tank your product plans. You need open communication and understanding with stakeholders across the organization. Product development is much more than tidying backlogs and updating roadmaps.

The empathy gap is a real threat to every product team — you cannot achieve product excellence unless you can empathize with the people who build, sell, support, and use your product.

Most people struggle to understand the perspective or predict the actions of someone who is in a different mental state. But that is what product managers do every day — from working with the development team to choosing what to prioritize for customers. If you are a leader in title or action, you can help close the gap by instilling a sustainable approach to empathy:

Detach with intention

Approach empathy like an investigator or scientist. This is not about what you would do, after all. Reframe your internal monologue and try to visualize mental states that are different from your own. Start with depersonalizing when you ponder problems. Let’s say you work on a fitness tracker with built-in GPS. Rather than ask “What would I do if I was lost on a run?” you could shift to “What challenges would an athlete face when the trail is lost?”

Discuss with real people

Imagining is theoretical. You might come up with a few good insights, but it is all speculative. There is a smarter way to empathize that is deceptively simple — gather real information from real people. You just need a mechanism for doing so. With customers, you can hold empathy sessions, form advocacy committees, or listen in on support calls. Internally you can build time into your product team meetings for open-ended discussion with each functional group. These are opportunities for you to learn more about individual perspectives.

Reduce bias with data

You might speak with many customers. But you will not be able to connect with all of them. And even if you could, there are other factors that go into building a product — company values, business strategy, financials. Data can be a useful tool as you navigate all those inputs. Just remember that while the past is often a good indicator of the future, it cannot tell you what users would do with something entirely new.

Decipher with caution

One data point is just one data point. There are likely dozens more that could sway you in different directions. One voice is just one voice. Often the most vocal customers are not reflective of the majority. Your cross-functional colleagues bring the baggage of their own work. You will have good days and bad days yourself. Context is everything and this is where experienced product managers listen closely and never assume. Remember that your own mental state can affect how you internalize what you hear from others.

A sense of belonging is powerful — when we feel we are in something together with folks who truly understand us, deep bonds form.

And before you think that this is all one-sided altruism, I want to add one more benefit. Practicing empathy for others will help with self-compassion and quiet inner discord. It is a virtuous cycle. Apply the same methodical approach to your own challenges as you grow in your career and take on new responsibilities.

Empathy leads to more meaningful relationships and can even inspire love. What you invest in learning how to empathize and making it a habit will be returned to you tenfold. The team will feel more in sync. Conversations will be more authentic. Your product will resonate better with customers.

How do you practice empathy?

We love you already. But you might need more time. How about 30 days free?

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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