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Empathy in Product Design: What You Do (or Don’t) Know About Your Users Matters More than You May Think

Worry Free LabsEmpathy in Product Design: What You Do (or Don’t) Know About Your Users Matters More than You May Think
Empathy in Product Design: What You Do (or Don’t) Know About Your Users Matters More than You May Think
Worry Free LabsEmpathy in Product Design: What You Do (or Don’t) Know About Your Users Matters More than You May Think
I recently had lunch at a local fast-casual restaurant and noticed the establishment had changed its drink dispensing machine. In the past, they’d used the Coca-Cola Freestyle drink machine, with its modern, sleek design, touchscreen interface, and hundred-plus flavor combinations. Today however, the restaurant was back to a traditional drink dispenser, with standard offerings out of separate spouts. What would compel a business to revert to, what some may call, old technology?  Especially with all of the accolades Coca-Cola seems to get from its custom dispenser.
Truth be told, I wasn’t entirely surprised by the restaurant’s decision. Although the Freestyle offers a fun, engaging user experience and custom drink options, consumers spend significantly more time standing in line to get a drink, resulting in congestion at the machine. This can be especially problematic during the always-busy lunch hour and at other peak times.
As a UX researcher and designer, I can’t help but notice how people respond to using a product. The purpose of this article isn’t to outline all of the good and bad design elements of this single product, but, rather, to note that when product features don’t align with the needs of users – and environmental factors aren’t given appropriate consideration – products fail. Such failures can be avoided through qualitative research methods, such as observations and contextual inquiry.

Empathy in Design

A key factor in designing a successful product is having empathy for your users – understanding what they do, think, feel, and say. This helps you identify what they truly need and the context in which your product might meet this need.
Gaining understanding and empathy for users to fuel design decisions is not a new concept; in fact, it is a primary tenet of human-centered design. “Empathize” is the first step in Design Thinking, a process that has been embraced by the business world as a key to driving innovation and differentiating one product from another. Both Forbes and Harvard Business Review have recently written about empathy and design thinking.

Contextual Inquiry

Contextual inquiry is a highly effective means for understanding your users, their needs, and the context in which they may use your product. Contextual inquiry helps you grasp an end user’s needs within their own unique environment – to uncover what the user actually does (not just what they say they do) and discover unmet needs. It creates opportunities for you to improve your products and/or innovate. Contextual inquiry should be done in the early stages of product design, so that research findings guide design solutions, and users are considered throughout the process.
As a part of contextual inquiry, researchers schedule time with a single user and observe him/her performing specific tasks. Researchers begin by interviewing the user to gain an overall understanding, and then establish a master-apprentice relationship, whereby the researcher observes, takes notes, and occasionally interrupts to ask questions about the user’s needs and/or processes. After the user has completed his/her tasks, another interview session can take place to review a high-level summary of the findings – allowing the user an opportunity to validate or correct what was uncovered.
Consider these 10 tips to conducting successful contextual inquiries:
  1. Don’t judge – Observe and engage users without the influence of value judgments upon their actions, circumstances, decisions, or “issues.”
  1. Actively listen – Lose your interview guide, so that you absorb what users say to you, and how they say it, without thinking about the next thing you’re going to ask.
  1. Notice emotional responses – Observe a user’s facial expressions and body language while he/she is working. Look for things that cause frustration or delight. Ask users about how they are feeling during different phases of their work. 
  1. Be truly curious – Strive to assume a posture of wonder and curiosity, especially in circumstances that seem either familiar or uncomfortable.
  1. Question everything – Question the things you think you already understand. Ask questions to learn about how the user perceives the world. Think about how a 4-year-old asks “Why?” about everything. Follow up an answer to one “why” with a second “why” for a deeper understanding and more clarity around the bigger picture. 
  1. Find patterns – Look for interesting threads and themes that emerge across interactions with users.
  1. Take pictures or videos – Take note of the user’s surroundings: the layout of the space, and the people, systems, and things he/she interacts with to understand the true complexity of the user’s work. There is a lot to absorb and remember, and because time is limited, you may not be able to write everything down. Pictures and videos provide wonderful ways to capture this vital data.
  1. Observe the environment – Notice environmental factors that might influence a user’s experience. Lighting, temperature, and noise are just a few of the factors that may need to be considered when designing your product. Consider frequency of use for a product throughout the day and what might influence this change. Are there times when your product will be used more? How might this impact design?
  1. Focus on workflow – A product is rarely, if ever, used in isolation. Understanding the larger context in which your product is used is essential to understanding your user’s overall goals and influences. Take note of the purpose and role other systems and products play in the user’s tasks. Notice when the user interacts with other people, what role they play, and any patterns of when and why the interaction takes place.
  1. Include a variety of users – It’s important to consider all “average” (and some extreme) users in your research. Take the Coca-Cola Freestyle machine. Who is its average user? Teenagers? Older adults? Parents filling drinks for multiple kids? When planning your contextual inquiries, recruit a variety of users with different levels of experience; from different work environments; and who may have different relationships with your product. For B2B companies, it is also important to consider the needs of both the business buying the product and the end user or consumer using the product. Your goal should be to empathize and consider the perspectives of all users.
By using research methods like contextual inquiry to gain empathy for your users, you become their advocate and ensure their needs are at the center of your design process from start to finish. This supports the creation of successful products that are embraced by users and drive your business’ success.
Jeanie Barker is a Principal UX Designer at Worry Free Labs. With more than 16 years of usability and interface design experience, 14 of which have been spent in the healthcare and public health domains, she specializes in design thinking and user research methodologies. Jeanie holds a master’s degree in human-computer interaction from Georgia Tech, and a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Rochester Institute of Technology. She is a member of the adjunct faculty of University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Health Professions, teaching master’s level students about user experience in healthcare information technology.

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