Leon Ho

Founder of Lifehack and Steply.
Reach me leon [at] leonho.com.
~ Monday, October 24 ~
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Empathy is a powerful tool for startup


Photo credit: RishiB (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I started my career as a programmer but I am lucky enough to learn and work on UI/UX in my startup. I asked some of my designer friends: What is the most important aspect of designing a product? They told me it’s empathy. Without understanding users pain and needs, you can never design a usable interface.

Empathy is not only a powerful capacity for design, it is also an amazing ability for anything that is related to human interaction.

Recently when our team were drafting an email to potential customers, we wrote it in a way  that is just stating the facts of our beta product. It’s a very clear and straightforward email, but it’s not something people would respond and act on. Then we thought about the recipients’ background, their needs, and their views on our product externally, we figured out we did not set the right tone to give them the confidence they need.

It sounds easy, but human beings tend to have a blind spot for recognizing issues from other people’s perspective and only see it from our own view. Learning the ability to detach from our own views and assumptions and putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is a very important ability.

Another situation is when we talked with potential partners and tried to understand their needs. It’s difficult because you need to convince yourself, as well as to convince them, because potential partners usually want your product to behave in ways which may not be in the same direction as yours. As the creator of the product, you wouldn’t want to see your product diverge into something that is tailor made for one person. From the other side of the fence, they want a custom-made product that fits their needs. Trying to empathize with their real requirements on the partnership and then figure out the balanced way to fit your vision to their needs should be your number one goal.

Sometimes you could be right but your customers may not see it. In  the Steply network, our users care a lot if other users are cheating by uploading someone elses photos. We realized this problem. We spot any irregularity and get reports from users in order to moderate it and give out warnings to users in question, even though users assumed we have done nothing to prevent it. This is certainly a discouragement, but looking from their angle, they may not recognize our efforts from what they see. 

Empathy gives you the reasoning, the information, and sometimes reduces the negativity and lets you get a glimpse of the whole story. Without empathy, you may create a product that no one wants, a business proposal that no one agrees with, or assess a situation that looks pretty different from the actual truth.

Tags: design partnership startup customer
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