Why Kindergartners Are More Empathetic Than Product Managers
October 22, 2020

Why Kindergartners Are More Empathetic Than Product Managers

by Brian de Haaff

"I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it." Maya Angelou said this in an interview, the same year that Aha! was founded. I still find the sentiment refreshingly hopeful — in life and business. Because it means that our challenge is not lacking empathy. The challenge is being bold enough to ask what others are thinking and open enough to internalize their feelings.

Empathy is crucial to innovation — but it is not always clear how to bring it into your everyday work.

No matter our role, we are all told that we need to develop more empathy. In technology companies, it is product managers who hear it most. You need to understand the customer's pain. But that is especially hard if your product does not solve a problem that you experience yourself. It is not that you do not care. It is more likely that you are flooded with information and do not have time to figure out the best way to engage with them.

Earlier this week we launched a new product — Aha! Ideas. It builds on the massive success of Aha! Roadmaps, our flagship product which includes essential idea management tools. The big insight behind this new product is that while there are many tools that help teams collect ideas, none help you deeply engage with the actual people who submit those ideas.

Developing empathy for customers requires that you personally engage with them — not just collect their ideas.

Maybe it seems obvious. After all, even kindergarteners have the capacity to be deeply connected to how others feel. They share common experiences and ask a lot of questions. They are unafraid to be inquisitive and are interested in learning the "why" behind the answer.

Yet the most common approaches we use in business to collect customer feedback methods — like net promotor scores or surveys — need to be interpreted. They fall short because you are guessing what someone might think and feel based on their response. You never actually get to know the person because the interaction is asymmetrical.

So Aha! Ideas goes further. It makes it easy to personally connect product and company builders with the people they care most about — their customers and colleagues. We do this through what we call "empathy sessions" — live chat-based discussions with groups of people. And there is in-app community feedback so you can better understand people's struggles while they are actually using your product.

It starts with recognizing that the products you build have a real impact on real people's lives.

Your product can deliver lasting value. And taking that long-term approach means you cannot guess or assume what customers want. So how do you get to know the people you care about most — so you can bring those learnings into your planning process?

My suggestions below assume that you have some sort of idea management process in place and a tool like Aha! Ideas. But even if you are still manually collecting input, you can still benefit from this approach:

Explore

When a customer shares feedback, begin with curiosity. Your job is to learn everything you can about their experience. Approach it with humanity and a beginner's mindset — you have to truly understand the problem before you try to solve it.

Translate

We all have biases. It is natural to hear a customer's idea and apply your own perspective to it. Or see it through the lens of how the team has always addressed similar feedback. Great product managers are able to translate between the customer and the product team by distilling the problem to its essence.

Validate

After you distill all of that feedback down, you need to validate what you think the solution is against the constraints that exist. Do not be precious. Shake it up, bang it around, make sure that your understanding is sound. Then evaluate it against a strategic scorecard to understand the broader business impact.

Engage

You want to reach out when customers have the most need and when you have the best chance at learning. This is what makes empathy sessions especially powerful. You can invite anyone who has commented or voted on a particular idea in your ideas portal — these are the folks who will be most passionate about it. Engage with them in a group for real-time, collective feedback.

Create

You are your customer's greatest advocate. If you believe that you own the customer experience (and you should) — you will be tireless about driving action based on what you have learned. Lead the prioritization process with conviction. Do not make the engineers chase after what is most important to work on next.

Building customer empathy into your daily work takes focus and dedication. We are doing our small part with Aha! Ideas to help.

The real joy of building anything new comes from understanding people and solving problems for them. I think for all of us, the greatest opportunities for empathy and meaningful service to others is just ahead.

What have you done to better understand customers?

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Brian de Haaff

About Brian de Haaff

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

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