Product Empathy

Building a good product is really hard. The strange thing about that observation is that it’s somewhat counter-intuitive, and I think it’s because using good products is really easy. So what do you need to build good products? There’s often some key technology, for example PageRank is what made Google amazing. But even with good technology (eh, BetaMax vs VHS, hello?) it’s not a sure-fire thing that the product will succeed. I believe a large part of it comes down to having strong product empathy.

Now, before you think I’m going all new-age on you, I’m not talking about emotional empathy for your users, but rather the ability to truly put yourself in the shoes of the user who is using the product you’re building. As I write this, I realize that this may all sound trivially simple, but it’s not.

At the core, the challenge arises because of information asymmetry (or perhaps it might be called knowledge or ability asymmetry) – you, the one building the product, know so much about how to use your product, that you can’t see it the way your user will. You have massive product experience blindspots.

Let me give you an example. I have a camera that uses a rechargeable battery, although I’ll admit I don’t use it that much anymore. In any case, it comes with a battery charger that’s custom made for the camera’s battery, and I’m always puzzled by it. It has a single LED that can display different states and colors. There’s one color for the “the charger is on”, another for “I’m charging now”, and another one for “the battery is full”. The light state also changes for “the battery is pretty empty” and yet another one for “the battery is almost full”. In total, the light can show blue, red, amber, slow blinking and fast blinking. Here’s an exercise for the reader: with no further information, assign these light color and state combinations to the functionality I described earlier. Easy? You see, the product designers got so used to “of course blue means fully charged” that they completely forgot that the user has no idea. There’s nothing on the charger indicating any of this, and it’s a source of major frustration for me every time I charge the battery. My workaround, which I really don’t like, is to simply charge the battery overnight every time I need it.

This is what I mean by lack of product empathy.

The camera is great, or at least was great for its time. I’m sure the battery and the charger are also good technology for their respective purposes, or at least I haven’t had real problems with battery life and such. But the experience is frustrating. There are literally hundreds or thousands of these tiny mismatches in every person’s lives, all because the people building the products we use could not overcome their own user experience blindspots.

The world would be a better place if people building products had more product empathy.

Discuss on Twitter.