Using Empathy as a Framework for Success


My dog, MarcoOver in the web world, the fun comprised of Information Architecture, User Experience, Content Strategy, and a few other titles, there has been an increasing focus on empathy. There is even the Dare conference dedicated to the people skills, aka feelings, that is needed by all of us techies.

There have been discussions about empathy being the missing ingredient for successful projects. Others have pointed out that while empathy is important, more education and leadership needs to be added to the mix as well. I even talked about it when I encouraged Content Professionals to Be the Business and spend more time understanding what people actually do during the day.

Of course, like everything in the world, proper balance is the key to success. Empathy is the framework in which we need to deliver our advice, solutions, and products. It isn’t the deliverable, but it adds depth to how we present the deliverable.

Start with Empathy

Let’s face it. When you start a project, your first concerns are making sure the scope is well understood and that everyone has a positive attitude about the project.

The second thing that needs to be done is to start to build empathy for the client. I have been in a lot of requirement meetings where we document the step-by-step requirements in exquisite detail. There is usually some effort to understand the problem that is being solved, but little effort is made to understand what people think and feel about the current and proposed solution.

To fully address a problem, we need to understand the pain of the people who use the systems every day. Where does it hurt? What is great? What do they dread? In a perfect world, how would it work? What is the reason for everything that is done? What one feature would make the whole project worthwhile?

How often do we take time to just watch people work? Why not take a day to watch people do their job and witness their frustrations and successes as they happen? Take those findings and use them to give the requirements an added dimension.

When you do these things, you gain perspective and you can start to advocate for the client in the final product.

Using that Empathy

Now that there is an understanding of what the client needs and feels, empathy can be used. Deliverables can be created in the context of what matters to the people. Sure, the documents need to be full of the same facts and figures, but the descriptions can include more about the why, not just what.

My old dog MollyDesign meetings, leverage what you have learned to describe how the design will truly help them. Listen to the feedback. Listen to the why of the feedback, not just the what. Evolve your understanding.

In presentations and demos, it will become simple to relate the challenges that people are facing to the solution and describe how it will address their most important issues. Educating people on how the solution will work is important, but with a little empathy, you can help them care that it works.

If you really pour yourself into the project, you will care.

The goal is that not only will the client have a solution that meets the stated goals, but everyone will feel like it was built with them in mind. People will become invested in the solution and put forth the extra effort needed to make it a success. They not only see how the solution can help the business but how it can help them.

Big Picture

The big picture is the same as it has always been, solve the problem. The difference? We need to make sure that we frame the solution in such a way that it resonates with people. They have feel you understand them and are helping then, not simply selling them something shiny that will shortly be sitting on the shelf.

That means understanding what people are dealing with every day and using that understanding to craft the right solution. Mapping the solution to the challenges and clearly explaining how every detail is designed to address their needs is critical.

Empathy isn’t the solution to everything. Like everything else, it is a tool. It is one that is just often overlooked or misused.

Go out, do what you normally do, but insert some empathy into the process. See what happens.