The Art of Gaining Customer Empathy

Apr 29 • 4 mins read

To understand the people we are designing for, we must gain empathy for who they are and what is important to them. I recently attended a workshop by the folks at Empathy, a design firm focused on deep customer understanding.

Our challenge was to enhance the shopping experience at 3rd Street Promenade, a popular tourist location in Santa Monica.

The following is a recap and some of my learnings along the way.

Have a Design Thinking Mindset & Process
Design thinking is a human-centered and collaborative approach to problem-solving. The design mindset is not what you do but how you do it.

Design thinking is all about collaboration with a group of people. It embraces trying stuff out, iterating, and improving. It has a bias towards actions since often what people say is not what they do. A show don’t tell approach favors visuals and telling good stories that connect back to people

We need to be mindful of the process by knowing where we are in the design process and what methods to use. While we like to say the design thinking process goes from one step to the next, that’s rarely the case. It’s a messy and iterative process.

We used a flare and focus approach to generate ideas and find solutions. The ideation phase is all about having a large number of diverse ideas. We then narrowed them down based on constraints to choose the best ideas to test against.

Preparation is Key

Before immersing ourselves with the customer, we need to know what information we want to gather.

First, we collaborated and brainstormed ideas of potential methods to solve our challenge. We thought about everything from intercepting shoppers at the parking lot to talking with the employees of the stores. No idea was a bad idea.

We then brainstormed on who were our stakeholders. These included tourist, the casual shopper, street performers, and more. For each stakeholder identified, we then explored how to get the information we need. It’s important to use different methods and triangulate findings to avoid bias.

Next, we thought about who were our extreme users were. These people would have the best insights to understand the opposite ends of the spectrum. For our scenario, it might be the out of town shopper who goes to 3rd Street Promenade every day versus the local resident who avoids it at all cost.

Finally, we narrowed down our focus to figure out who we wanted to observe and what information we needed. Once decided, we could tailor our observation and conversation prompts to get the key information.

Immerse Yourself
Contextual inquiry is a method that applies ethnographic observation and one-on-one interviewing.

To understand how people use your service or product, we need to see them use it in their environment. An app used while walking down a busy street is different than one used in the comfort of home. But observation is only part of the equation. It answers the what and how but not the why. For that, there is the conversation.

We need to build rapport with our customers for them to be comfortable sharing their thoughts. We should be genuine, curious about them, and patient. It should feel like a conversation between friends, rather than an interview.

To ease them in, we need to focus on the larger context first before digging into the details. To understand context, we need to look at the bigger picture. A larger context to shopping on 3rd Street Promenade is shopping in general. A larger context to shopping might be a person’s lifestyle. We want to wait to dig into the detail of your focus area. When having the conversation, we want to go from broad to narrow by beginning with context questions to frame the scope and build rapport.

Seek Stories and Dig Deep
Stories tell a whole lot about a person’s experience and feelings. We want to seek stories in conversation. To prompt for stories, we can use phrases like “tell me about a time” or “what about the last time..”

We want to dig deep to get to the underlying reason why customers say what they say. We can do this by asking why 5 times, a method made famous by Toyota. We don’t actually want to use “why.” We want to ask open-ended questions to get different levels of information. Information about actions, thoughts, beliefs, feelings and emotions.

At the end of the workshop, we went out to 3rd Street Promenade to apply what we learned. By knowing the key information to gather, we knew what to observe for and talk about with shoppers. We got a better understanding of their goals, emotions, and frustrations.

By gaining empathy with shoppers, we’ll be able to a design a more meaningful solution to enhance their experience. Overall it was a fun, insightful workshop that gave a framework and tools to better understand your customers. We even learned the proper way to peel a post-it. Check out Empathy if you’re interested in learning more and future workshops.


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