guest blogger product management

Using Customer Empathy To Build Better Products

Guest Post by: Siddarth Ramaswamy (Mentee, Session 10, The Product Mentor) [Paired with Mentor, Alberto Simon]

One of the critical reasons why products fail is not being ready for the market and not identifying the target segment of audience and what they want from the product. This is  largely caused due to not researching enough around the market you are building for understanding the target audience and spending enough time with your customers to build empathy for them and understand their pain points.

“Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings and condition from his or her point of view, rather than from one’s own” – Psychology Today.

Empathy plays a critical role in design thinking as explained in IDEO’s Human Centered Design Toolkit. It provides a deep understanding of the problems and realities of the people you are designing for. Empathize, the first stage of the design thinking process, which does the following:

  • Gains an empathic understanding the people you’re designing for and the problem you are trying to solve
  • Understand their experiences and motivation by observing, engaging and empathising with people you are designing for.
  • Immersing yourself in their physical environment in order to have a deeper personal understanding of the issues, needs and challenges faced.
  • This helps product visionaries and innovators set aside their biases and assumptions about the world in order to gain insight into their users and their needs.

To understand better as to how customer empathy helps products, lets first look at products that have failed due to lack of customer empathy.

How Products Fail Without Customer Empathy

Google Glass is the first example of how a product can fail due to lack of market understanding and customer empathy:

  • There was no consensus among the creators about the core use cases of Google Glass. Even the differences the groups assumed that product adoption would happen due to hype of the product without validating the assumption.
  • The designers of Google Glass failed to clearly define what advancement they were providing for their target users by only allowing users to take pictures or scroll through the internet with just 2 to 3 hours of battery life and was not competition to existing fast processors and superior cameras. It also didn’t seem to be socially unacceptable to use and wear in public.
  • Lack of education of use cases of how users were able to use it.
  • After hitting the market and failing, Glass has since pivoted to a B2B model and have changed their strategy.

Facebook Home is another classical failure of a product not getting market fit:

  • The product was built by people always carrying an iPhone and had no idea how important widgets, docks and app folders were to Android Users
  • Most of the Facebook employees were given iPhone and Android took a lead on the market share, and they wanted to capture the market share. Without understanding the Android ecosystem, it would be wrong to build any products around it.
  • After launch and after the app rating considerably fell to 1 – 2 stars, instead of adding more features, the team concentrated on back tracking and changed the mission from replacing the lock and home screen to a thinner layer on top of your existing phone
  • A lot of android users are skeptical about privacy issues and Facebook home ended up becoming very intrusive and scared people away

First Principles of customer empathy

As we are building products, we often try collecting a lot of data rather than just concentrating on intuition and founder bias to build products. A lot of products either use data to support their founder bias or tell their story.

Quantitative data helps define the what of your product and qualitative defines the why of the product. Understanding the why of your customers through qualitative research leads to understand and empathise with your customers.

Below are a few principles that help empathising with your customer more:

  • Reveal customer cravings: Unlock and understand people’s inner desires by getting a handle on their cravings. Learn what they crave in the moment and what they crave through their lives.


  • Identify pain points and sweet spots: Through conversations via 2 way dialogue with your customers you can easily form an accurate picture of the challenges they face every day, the tasks and activities they are engaged with.
  • Uncover sources of inspiration: Through various research means understand more about how people share their feelings and the emotional connections towards their inspirations
  • Understand the customer’s environment: While the above 3 points help us understand a lot about the customer, the environment they are in also helps us with a lot of insights in terms of the objects they interact with and also how they interact with their environment.
  • Exploit new technologies: A powerful new route to achieving empathy is online insight communities, which allow direct and immediate access to customers opinions and perspectives. These platforms can provide access to customers hearts and minds in a highly representative and scalable manner


How to build customer empathy

  • Build empathy by understanding the actual needs and backgrounds of potential users
  • Observe potential users without prejudice and in their actual environment
  • Act like an outsider and explore the user and the environment they are in, be very curious
  • Improve empathy by perceiving your own wishes, which in turn makes you more open to the needs of others
  • Listening carefully is a crucial component of empathy. Paying attention to the body language and probe if it seems to contradict what has been said.
  • Transfer emotions about contents from the digital world to reality by emoticons
  • Draw conclusions from variations of the emoticons about users, their behaviour, and their emotional relationship to content, products and services.
  • Enhance user experience  through the empathy you have built up
  • Make sure that all parties involved in the development phase are already dealing actively with users wishes
  • Pay heed to cultural context in UX because it can strongly affect how the user perceives the offer

While the above set of points details out what you need to look for and how to build customer empathy, it’s also important to understand the different methods available to research and collect information about the user in different phases of the product.

Product Development Phase
Strategize Execute Assess
Goal Inspire, explore and choose new directions and opportunities Inform and optimize designs in order to reduce risk and improve usability Measure product performance against itself or competition
Approach Qualitative and Quantitative Mainly Qualitative Mainly Quantitative
Typical Methods Field Studies, Diary Studies, Surveys, Data Mining, Analytics Card Sorting, Field Studies, Participatory Design, Paper Prototype, Usability Studies, Desirability Studies, Customer Emails Usability Benchmarking, Online Assessments, Surveys, A/B Testing

More details of the above methods can be found here

Case Study on using customer empathy to build products

Problem Statement: The IKEA store app was developed to improve the in store customer experience for shopping products. During multiple user interviews IKEA realised that there was little or no customer adoption.

Design Process

  • Business Analysis
  • User Research & Synthesis – Heuristic Evaluation, Competitive Analysis, Ethnography, User Interviews, Affinity Mapping, Empathy Maps, Personas and Customer Journey Mapping
  • Design – Prototyping and Usability Testing

Learning Points

  • Having a digital product might not always be the best solution, certain scenarios might need human intervention to improve the experience
  • Understanding user behaviours at times tells you a lot more than talking to users

Way Forward

  • Running more usability tests and interviewing of users
  • Understanding what new features can improve the user experience and delight the users

For a more detailed read, please follow this link.

About Siddarth Ramaswamy


Siddarth has 8+ years of experience building and growing customer focused products across payments, marketing, personal data management and workplace automation. He led product and engineering teams that work with people across departments, verticals and organizations across the product life cycle with empathy, data and well thought customer experience.




More About The Product Mentor

TPM-Short3-Logo4The Product Mentor is a program designed to pair Product Management Mentors and Mentees around the World, across all industries, from start-up to enterprise, guided by the fundamental goals…

Better Decisions. Better Products. Better Product People.

Each Session of the program runs for 6 months with paired individuals…

  • Conducting regular 1-on-1 mentor-mentee chats
  • Sharing experiences with the larger Product community
  • Participating in live-streamed product management lessons and Q&A
  • Mentors and Mentees sharing their product management knowledge with the broader community

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Jeremy Horn
The Product Guy

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