Empathy: The single most important way to garner greater user engagement

Empathy: The single most important way to garner greater user engagement

two women discussing content on a tablet computer

Empathy; the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this

In my previous post we discussed what design thinking is and how your organization should be using it.  The first step:  how to clearly define the problem you are trying to solve.  With the problem defined, you can now put yourself in your customer’s shoes.

We use a human-centered design process at Balance Interactive.  Empathy is at the heart of this process for any branding, campaign or digital project we undertake.  The key to user engagement is understanding your members within the context of your particular business challenge. 

We need to FEEL the frustration or complacency or love of a customer in order to truly address them in meaningful ways. 

Putting yourselves in your customer’s shoes should not involve guessing.  It should not involve creating personas “based on what you already know”.   Set aside what you think you know about your customers and do this: 

Pick two customers: 

  • A highly engaged customer
  • A member that is completely unengaged

Ask to shadow each of them for one full work day (or a half day if that’s more comfortable for them).  Observe their activities. Listen to them.  Ask them to talk you through their day. Some things to ask them include: 

  • How they use the client's site
  • What things do they do regularly on it
  • What other sites/tools do they use (and to show you) how they use them
  • What they spend the most time on and have them show me that

This technique is called ethnography and has been used by corporations for a long time.  In a March 2009, Ken Anderson wrote in a Harvard Business Review Article “Ethnography has proved so valuable at Intel that the company now employs two dozen anthropologists and other trained ethnographers, probably the biggest such corporate staff in the world.”

Ken quickly and succinctly defines the practice: 

“Ethnography is the branch of anthropology that involves trying to understand how people live their lives. Unlike traditional market researchers, who ask specific, highly practical questions, anthropological researchers visit consumers in their homes or offices to observe and listen in a non-directed way. Our goal is to see people’s behavior on their terms, not ours. While this observational method may appear inefficient, it enlightens us about the context in which customers would use a new product and the meaning that product might hold in their lives.”

We use the practice of corporate ethnography in our own work with membership associations.  It has uncovered some very important insights that we would not have found with other methods.  Things like: 

1.    Your members are getting so many emails from you that they don’t even read them anymore.
2.    Your members are not signing up for events because there is a small faction of your membership that drinks so heavily it feels like a frat party (and people were hesitant to tell staff)
3.    Your members are not allowed to use cell phones during the work day.
4.    Your members are only using their cell phones during the day
5.    Your international members are struggling at conferences because they don’t speak English

“When I observe those interactions, I can see where they've developed workarounds, where they're using three tools when one would be more efficient/useful for them,” said Melissa Woodson, our director of user experience. “I can see what is automatic for them—what is easy and not even thought of as a "task" on their list. I can see what they find annoying or cumbersome, even if they don't articulate that. The fact of the matter is, most users are not on a client's site even daily, if ever. But seeing them in their day-to-day work reveals opportunities that would make them more likely to visit the site/engage with the organization.”

Pair your ethnographic research with your surveys, interview and other research. Once you have that information and feel that you deeply understand your users, you can put it all together.

This next step is very important: 

In order to draw conclusions from your work, you need to process all of the things you heard and saw and you need to communicate those with your team.  We tend to take all of the information we have found and to get it out of our heads we put it on a big wall.  We use post-it’s and quotes and journey maps and photos – anything that captures impressions, feelings and information about our user.  

Only once we have shared and synthesized and pontificated do we move to the next stage: Re-defining the challenge from the perspective of the user. 

“It's eye opening. It's exciting,” Woodson said. “It allows me to be creative in ways that a ‘website project’ doesn't leave room for. It feels like we're solving a real user need rather than simply satisfying a requirement.”

Connect With Us!

Do you have a project that could benefit from our Design Thinking approach? Call us at 703.451.8675 or contact us online

Want to experience design thinking in action?

And at the same time solve your own business challenges?  I am so excited that ASAE has created this innovative experience:  http://xdp.asaecenter.org/

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