How do we empathize with our users as a team? / by Gavin Lau

It’s a very popular conversation among UX designers and UX evangelist to advocate for their users and try to solve a problem and remove a pain point. Not only it is about being supportive or analyzing the pains in users’ interaction, but also it’s about being in that moment with the same emotions, thoughts and feelings that the target users are dealing with. That’s when we need to go deep into the psychological elements of human reaction and decision making process. “Empathy” is the familiar concept that we may have experienced it in our day to day relationship with friends and family members.

Over the past few years in our office we came up with some sort of activities in our scrum teams that are helping us all in a team of developers, designers, project managers and test engineers to have better understanding of users situations and also put ourselves easier in users’ shoes. Here we can read a summary of how my teams and I are empathizing with our users.


Get Ready to Empathize

In order to be ready to create empathy between you and your users, you need to prepare some materials and bring some attitudes to your teams, so in the empathy process you can use these items to create better understanding of the situation:

1- Journey Map: Each project should have at least one UX journey map for the users interaction with the the product, while using the system, and before and after of the interaction with the system. Make sure that you have your journey maps and you have already shared that with your team members. Journey maps are helping you an your team to be focused on where users’ needs are triggered and what are the exact actions that they are taking to finish a task in your product. It also helps you to have an overall view about your project from the users perspective.

2- Persona: In order to empathize with your users you need to be aware of different personas interacting with your product. Don’t try to invest that much to create your personas, there are some great techniques that allows you to create quick Proto-Persona, to use that for your empathy sessions. Proto-Personas are really great tools for agile teams to go lean with their user research process and iterate on their persona as they learn more about their users.

3- Scenario: You need to be aware of what the scenarios that users having problems with are. These scenarios can also represent a path for a conversion problem that your marketing team noticed. For example, a drop on a sign up page, which actually shows there is something wrong or not working well for either your users or the business goals.

4- Awareness: You need to have ways to create awareness for everyone in your team. This awareness can be caused by allowing the team to have access to user feedback, or by having a 30 minute feedback review session per week to read users’ feedback and comments. I noticed sharing the comments with peers and reading them out loud for team members creates a quick awareness and will have them all on board to connect better with users’ situations. You can also allow your team members know about related metrics to the project that they are working on. Also, if you have usability sessions on-site and you are frequently inviting users for usability test sessions, try to have one of your team members with you each time, so they can have more time to spend with the real end-user of their product and they will have better awareness eventually.

5- Passion: It’s your job to continuously drive your team’s mind to think more about that real person who is using their product. You have several opportunities to remind your teammates about who is exactly using it and based on the team’s structure these tools are varied. I personally take advantage of our sketching sessions and our grooming sessions as times to remind my teammates about the exact target user of our product. Over the time this will become a passion and a motivation for team members to create ideas that are helping a real user with several pain points interacting with a product.


Empathy Map Sessions

Once you have these items ready and you know that your team(s) is aware of the goals for empathizing with users, it’s time to map the empathy so it can be used to guide team members for further decisions in the product development. As one of the team practices, you can set up kind of a regular standup meeting, something that I call “Empathy mapping session”. We usually have these kind of standup sessions when we are going to evaluate a new problem statement and when we know something is wrong in one of our processes. Invite your team members to a quite room with a whiteboard, hand them some sticky notes and a marker. They are probably the scrum team members who suppose to work on that problem statement (sometimes you may need to invite executives or other stakeholders too). Then discover the persona and scenarios related to the problem and start empathizing for each persona in a specific scenario.

In order to have an organized way for empathy mapping, we rely on a psychological model and trying to model it in a simple way, so we will split the board to three section for each persona and a scenario and try to see what those personas would DoThink and Feel, when they are in that scenario. So allow your team to look back to the journey map and see where that persona is coming from and what are the steps in their journey, and then as a team start writing actions, thoughts and feelings on post-it notes and stick them to the board in specified section like what we see in the template below:

 Empathy mapping template

Empathy mapping template

Once you are done with your sessions, you can also go back to your desk and digitize the results, so it will be easier to share with your team. I always like to hang a copy of the empathy result next to the scrum board of each team, and it seems to be a great reminder while they are working on their projects.

Here is an example that shows one of the teams that I just work with them recently to come up with an empathy map for users who are looking at their learning center in their website. They wanted to generally detect what are the current pain points and what could increase the time on page and readability in those learning pages.

 Example of a digitized empathy map

Example of a digitized empathy map

You can also use these maps to define your stories, make sure that your are reviewing that with the product owners/managers, so they can have better understanding of how it can be used. Now you have more knowledge about your users and you have way more confidence of what would be the exact problem statement and what can be a better solution to cause an improvement. When we have design critique sessions, I hand the invitees a copy of these empathy maps and I’m asking them to use the facts from these maps in order to form their critiques align with users situation (although they are not forced to do it, but I noticed a lot of participants prefer this approach since it allows them to put themselves in users shoes).


Last Word

As you see they are all simple words and stories that are being added to the empathy map, but believe it or not, they are game changers when it comes to define priorities in your team. Once your team has total awareness of the target user situation, they eventually care more about them and they fight for their users, it’s not just you (UX designer) anymore who is fighting and advocating for users, it’s all of your team members picturing themselves having the same pain point as users have and they want fix them as soon as possible with the best possible solution. We all still do our project in agile or Lean UX mentalities, but over the time practicing empathy with your teammates creates a route to get the perfect solution earlier than what you are planning in your grooming sessions because now there is more motivation all around your company.