Everybody wants to be loved, especially products in a marketplace, whether breakfast cereal or complicated software.

In fact, creating an emotional connection between products and customers is often considered the holy grail of product design. Companies such as Apple, Xero and Evernote (which I am using to write this piece) do it particularly well. Their customer uptake, retention and customer referral is testament to it.

So how to they do it? Empathy.

Human-centred design is not new, but it has drifted away from what should make it great - empathic thinking. Putting yourself in the shoes of your product’s end user allows you to truly understand their needs, frustrations and joys.

But how do we become better listeners, so that we can build better products?

There are a few ways:

Keeping an open mind

The first step is often the hardest: being willing to challenge and remove barriers to understanding. Bias, authority and denial are all hurdles to overcome, limiting our ability to be empathetic, and they are barriers that appear on both sides of products (end users and stakeholders). Removing them allows us to begin to truly understand a user’s view of the world, just as sometimes we would wish an end user would understand the developer’s challenges in creating the product, and the limitations to what is achievable.

Learn to listen with your ears and eyes.

Observation is still one of the most underrated research techniques, and provides a great insight into the emotional behaviours of customers. Tune in to how people are actually using your product. Not how you think they should be, or how you’d like them to, or how the wireframes suggested they probably would: watch and listen to how they really are. Listening should be a whole of body experience, using not just your ears, but also your eyes.

While it may seem voyeuristic, watching people going about their everyday lives gives us a great indication of the type of issues that frustrate and delight them. (Apple says it created the AppleWatch because it had observed how smartphones had become too successful, with people spending so much time looking at their phone screen in social situations.) These issues can be difficult to capture in qualitative and quantitative research, and be careful: while it is easy in the digital age to web-search a similar solution to any problem, by adopting an existing pattern we eliminate the capacity to actually learn from our users or empathise with their situation. Tune into your customers, nobody else’s.

Walking a mile in their shoes

As an extension of the above point, sign into your product as a user and actually use it. It sounds ridiculously simple, but you’d be amazed how many product developers don’t take that step back to emphasise with a user approaching their product for the first time. Building customer journeys allows us to understand what a customer does to achieve an outcome. While research allows us to build an effective document of those journeys, taking the time to trace those journeys yourself allow us to truly empathise with their joys and frustrations.

Prototype early and prototype often.

Prototyping should be approached with the attitude of being prepared to fail. The key is to do it early, often and cheaply. Build a process in which concepts can be quickly prototyped and tested with end users as the feedback is invaluable.  Failure is often seen as a negative rather than a necessary part of a product’s evolution. As Edison famously said: “I have not failed, I have just found 100 ways something does not work”.

This knowledge is precious if you are to understand  what your customers value in your product, and where effort should be concentrated.

Build on the brand promise and experience.

Successful products are an extension of a brand promise. Customers that buy into a brand promise are looking for products that fulfill them.

I find doing my accounts is one of the last items I get excited about, I just find the process unnecessarily tedious. So after discovering Xero, and it's promise that accounting would be beautiful, simple and take no more than 5 minutes of my day. I signed up and fortunately, It did live up to its promise. While it may not have the features of other more advanced accounting solutions, its language is mercifully simple, it doesn’t talk down to me, and more importantly it allows me to do my accounts each day, quickly with little pain, and with a level of satisfaction.

By using empathy when designing products and focusing on the things that matter to the end user, we can put ourselves in the position of creating products that users love.