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Integrating Customer Empathy into the Product Creation Process

August 26, 2019

Written by Janelle Estes, UserTesting

How companies leverage human insights can significantly improve customer experience and build brand loyalty. 

All the statistics in the world can’t measure the warmth of a smile.” – Chris Hart.

Those words have never been truer. We’re living in the age of the customer, which Forrester has defined as a revolutionary business cycle in which companies must reinvent themselves to deeply understand digitally-savvy consumers. That means empathising with them on a human level — recognising their motivations, needs, desires, likes and dislikes across every touchpoint.

By gaining human insight that taps into customers’ feelings, businesses can develop and maintain the emotional connections that have become the essential ingredient in brand loyalty.

We’re also living in the age of data. As interactions with customers have become more and more digital, it has become standard practice for companies to analyse users’ behaviour through the digital trails they leave behind. And, indeed — technologies like big data and artificial intelligence can be useful in identifying and examining trends and patterns.

However, all too often, data has become a proxy for actual customer experience. Brands become so focused on inferring or guessing a customer’s preferences based on click data that they neglect to understand customers by seeing, hearing and talking to them first hand.

Numbers Need Narratives Behind Them.

A top airline understood this need to marry data insight with human insight. In addition to analysing shopping cart abandonment rates and conversion metrics for performance measures, it also ran an on-demand voice-of-the-customer program in which the airline could see, hear and talk to top-tier flyers about the pains they experienced when trying to book a trip using miles for their family through the new mobile app.

As a result, the company got an up-close-and-personal look at customer experience from the perspective of actual customers — leading to a deeper and more empathetic understanding of how to make the app delightful.

Another recent example of appealing to consumers on an emotional level was Nike’s commercial, ‘Never Stop Winning’ which aired seconds after the United States women’s soccer team won its second consecutive World Cup and earned hundreds of thousands of likes on Twitter and nearly 5 million YouTube views.


The 60-second commercial, which featured a woman’s voice leading a crowd in chants of “I believe,” simultaneously celebrated the team’s championship and advocated for an end to gender discrimination and pay inequity in sports. With no overt sales pitch, the commercial simply spoke to viewers in their own deeply human terms and associated the Nike brand with powerfully positive messages.

As a Forrester report put it:

Emotion has a bigger influence on customer loyalty than effectiveness or ease in nearly every industry.

When companies depend too heavily on data, or let other corporate cultural obstacles get in the way of assessing the customer journey through the eyes of customers, they develop an “empathy gap” – a failure to connect the dots between what customers think, feel, say, and do and how the business is (or isn’t) serving them.

Illustrating this chasm, a Capgemini study found that while 75 percent of companies believe themselves to be customer-centric, only 30 percent of customers believe this to be the case.

Across every industry, customer empathy – a term that may have sounded like a platitude in the past – is now the competitive differentiator. It provides the “why” context for decisions that better serve customers and becomes the central driver of compelling customer experiences.

The Human Connection

This has never been more important than in the digital age when, ironically, the more companies try to connect with customers across various digital channels, the more they can inherently lose human connection with them.

Intensely caring for customer experience is not just a nice thing to do — it has huge financial impact. Another Forrester report last year found that companies offering superior customer experience consistently outperform laggards in stock price and total returns.

Companies are under severe pressure to get this right. Digital pioneers like Amazon have raised the bar on ease of use, convenience, innovative features, and other qualities that forge an emotional bond with customers. Those that fumble the challenge are at risk at a time when power in the digital age has shifted to consumers and they can switch loyalties with a few taps or clicks.

Furthermore, in the digital economy, consumers now tend to compare companies less against competitors and more to their sense of what constitutes an ideal experience. If a business isn’t providing that, another one out there is or will soon. This hyper-competition demands new ways of approaching customer experience.

Broken down to its essence, customer experience is composed of three elements: Effectiveness(the experience delivers value),ease(it’s easy for customers to get that value), and emotion(customers feel good about the experience).

By collecting human insight at every stage of design, development, and delivery of their products, apps, websites and services, companies can address all three and blend interaction with real customers into their data-centric digital processes and personas. Human insight should inform every aspect of product design, creation, and support.

To be sure, several types of design and development frameworks exist to help companies produce offerings that customers want to use. These include Design Thinking, the Loop by IBM, Double Diamond, and combined frameworks including Designing Thinking, Lean UX, and Agile.

While these are great guides and have transformed the way that companies build products, I always encourage our customers to not get too hung up in the process and the details. It can get overwhelming, and the focus starts to shift to “am I doing the exact right activity at the exact right time?” instead of “how do we move forward with an experience that will meet or exceed our customers’ experience?”

Instead, I like to cite the Design Squiggle, which was created by Damien Newman in 2002. It covers the process of researching, uncovering insights, generating creative concepts, iteration of prototypes, and eventually concluding in one single designed solution. It is intended to convey the feeling of the journey — beginning on the left with mess and uncertainty and ending on the right in a single point of focus: the design.

The Design Squiggle can be a helpful paradigm as companies work to cultivate human experience as a core value.

And with the aid of technology — video, live interviews, and other research studies — to continually interact with customers, businesses can establish a feedback loop that becomes part of the brand’s lifeblood.

This is how a company can gain a crucial reality check — by squarely focusing on direct, immediate insights from the customers themselves to guide product design and creation.

If you don’t know how the customer actually feels, how can you truly give them what they want?

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