As product and service designers we often think that walking in our customer's shoes is the best way to experience customer empathy. We all  know how important it is to experience the empathy required to get down to the deep emotional state needed to really understand the jobs a customer is trying to get done and the problems they experience. Walking in their shoes is the best way to do this. Right?

(Bubble bursting) it seems nothing could be further from the truth.

It used to be that walking a mile in your customers shoes was considered one of the best techniques to develop empathy for your market. But what if all it did was make you sympathetic or contemptuous towards your market? From a product design perspective that is not the outcome that you want. If I was asked what the most important skill to understand when designing a product it would be, hands down, 'EMPATHY'. Connecting on that deep emotional level of your customer let's you understand them at level that is simply not achieved through any other means.

How important is it in product design process? - It is critical. If you cannot connect on this level then you may end up solving the wrong problem. This can lead to mediocre product or even product failure.

Being empathic can be a challenge though.

It takes experience to understand how to be empathic towards your market. It is not something you can learn from a whiteboard, a video or through reading a book. Achieving an empathic position comes from experience, sometimes years of experience, across lots of interviews, in varying industries, in a diverse number of projects by undertaking countless projects. So how do you apply empathy to your interviews and market? As mentioned earlier experts will tell you one of the most effective methods of being empathic is to literally walk in your customers shoes. And up until recently this was pretty much considered the best method available. However, recent research seems to be indicating that we may need to rethink how we engage our market when it comes to being empathic.

So maybe we have got it wrong on some level and all these years we have ignored the very simple fact that applying empathy to a situation, any situation, is more an art form than a prescribed method.

One of the first pitfalls is being sympathetic, rather than empathetic. It is not unusual in some projects to see team members getting confused between sympathy and empathy. Maybe this is the reason that some products never reach the potential they were intended too? And maybe it is the reason your product process is not delivering to your expectations. It can be that simple. It is the minutia in the process that can trip you up.

What is the difference between Sympathy and Empathy?

The first thing to understand is that Sympathy is not Empathy. Sympathy is largely used to convey commiseration, pity, or feelings of sorrow for someone who is experiencing misfortune. This sense is epitomised in the category of greeting cards most often labeled “sympathy” that specialise in messages of support and sorrow for those in a time of need.

Where as empathy is the term most often used to refer to the capacity or ability to imagine oneself in the situation of another, experiencing the emotions, ideas, or opinions of that person. It is a very important distinction because they are easy to confuse in the heat of an interview. Just remember the differences are that sympathy is feeling compassion, sorrow, or pity for the hardships that another person encounters, while empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of another.

It is worth keeping in mind that this will always be an ongoing challenge for those in product and service design. It is something you need to be constantly vigilant about no matter what emotive state you are in. There is no doubt if you have a product that has not delivered to your expectations it could well be that you weren't really applying empathy and therefore you have solved the wrong or a non-existent problem.

So back to being empathic. literature will tell you the best way to be empathic is to walk in your customers shoes. And this in the most part is true, however how you walk in their shoes could be the difference between a great product and just a product. Or so the research is telling us. 

Walking in your customers shoes may be more a negative than a positive.

Recent research is tending to imply that literally walking in your customers shoes may not be a great idea. What it seems to imply is that it breeds contempt for that individual more so than empathy. This will greatly effect the insights you draw from that interaction and this can be a real concern when it comes to good product design.

How can that be? I hear you asking.

In 2015 the Harvard Business Review conducted some research to better understand whether having a similar experience to your markets drove a more empathetic view of that market or individual. Several of their examples highlighted that this might work against you.

In one example the team interviewed a group of people who had planned to take the 'polar plunge' by jumping into the very icy lake Michigan. The group was split into two, one group read about a real life participant, Pat, who decided at the last minute not to take the plunge before they themselves taking the plunge. Yet group 2 read about Pat one week after they had taken the plunge.

According to HBR the results showed that those who read about Pat after they took the Plunge were more contemptuous of Pat than those who did not. What was happening here was those who took the plunge and read about it after the event adopted an attitude of 'suck it up'. If I can do it you can too. They had less empathy for Pat. Not what you want to happen if you need to get deep insights about your customers.

In essence what the study tends to suggest is those people who have had a similar experience are likely to to penalise those individuals who struggle to cope with a similar situation. This means less empathy.

It also dispels the myth that if you really want to get to know someone and the way they think and feel, walking a mile in their shoes may be the best thing you could do. Well maybe not! So, if your design process is not working for you, than maybe this is a good place to start. Re-examine your customers using a number of techniques, not just one in which you walk in their shoes.

How we, as an agency, approach finding empathy.

It's not an easy question to answer. One of the most important rules we apply is to not let a single person conduct all the interviews. Rather we will often use a number of people and sometimes we will get team members to interview the same person. We can then cross check to ensure we have the right position.

Another method is to match people of similar characteristics with people within the team. For example we recently interviewed an organisation with a strong company lead. This person had a very philosophical perspective on life and may have frustrated some of the more practical team members, so we chose one of our team who had a similar perspective.

Finally and most importantly, independently reviewing the results was critical to ensuring the interpretation was not swayed by the interviewers perspective alone. We always record our interviews so that when we write up the interviews to extract the times we can ensure we cover all aspects. A good independent person can weed out any biases in the interview process and in some cases go back and re-interview that person for further clarification.

Learning for empathy's sake.

Some people are naturally born empathic. These people often find careers in nursing or similarly aligned disciplines. But what do you do if you are not one of 'those' types of people? There is no doubt you can learn to be empathic, however overall experience  has proven to us that it's more an art than a prescriptive method. There is no real definitive answer here, but we can outline 9 guidelines, suggested by psychology today, that you can apply to ensure you are closer to empathy than you are to contempt or bias during an interview with another individual.

1.  Focus your attention on the welfare, interests, and needs of others
2.  Key into shared human values
3.  Suspend, temporarily, your own considered judgments and critiques
4.  Connect with the target
5.  Use Reflection
6.  Listen to the Target
7.  Use self-disclosure as appropriate
8.  Properly distance yourself to and from the target’s subjective world
9.  Practice all of the above    

Some of these suggestions seem obvious, and they are. However, they can be difficult to apply consistently across the length of a project.

It is generally understood that the higher your Emotional Intelligence the better you are at being empathetic. There are hundreds of articles and books that describe how to use empathy to research your customer's true needs and discover their unstated problem. However, nothing can replace experience and lots of it. It is the very reason design agencies like us spend so much time ensuring the research we undertake applies empathy and is reflective of the market, not our biases. If this is lacking then the conclusions you draw and product you develop may not be what the market truly needs or wants. In simpler terms your product will have mediocre impact and lack the disruptive impact you anticipated.

My recommendations

The best advice I can give someone looking to develop techniques for insight research based around empathy is to practice, practice, self-evaluate, practice, practice, self-evaluate and then do it again and again.

Our greatest passion is creating truly valued products and services that we see people enjoy, and we can say from first hand experience that it's a skill that takes time to develop, particularly if you don't seem o have it naturally. So the conclusion here is not to avoid walking in your customers shoes, rather it is to ensure this process does not dominate the input into your product design. It should form part of many techniques you use to derive an empathic position on a particular experience. That's the key.