6 ways to get user empathy without leaving your house
I always feel more confident making product decisions when I have a clear picture of the user. If I can feel what they feel, I know I’ll make better decisions about their product experience.
But sometimes getting that understanding is difficult – especially if I’m ramping onto a new product, if a project doesn’t yet have clear research or data, or if (like during a global pandemic) it’s harder to travel to meet a variety of users in person.
So how can I get that empathy?
Many of us have done some version of guerilla user research. I remember standing on the corner of 5th and Market in downtown San Francisco on a sunny day years ago, flagging people down and asking them to look at printouts of product mocks and give me five minutes of feedback.
Here are a few other scrappy ideas I’ve used to get empathy:
Read app store reviews. The texture of individual users complaining about or praising specific features gives me a bunch of threads to investigate. Customer Support tickets are great for this too.
Search Twitter and Facebook public posts for how people are talking about the product. Lots of reviews, complaints, and overall product gossip. I also follow the most vocal reviewers so I get bite-sized ongoing updates.
Search YouTube for product videos. Are there video reviews of the product? Instructional videos (which could suggest needed in-product improvements or education tools)? Who are the experts, and who’s watching and commenting? What does that tell you about which users are finding success?
Fully moving at least one high-volume, important task to a product, so I get out of “testing mode” and into the real experience of using an app. For example, I set up my iPhone to have the same apps as my Android, so I can fully switch from Android to iPhone and back every few months — moving my primary phone number and carrying that phone exclusively as my primary device. That way I get fully accustomed to the pattern of each device. Otherwise my “test phone” feels like a foreign experience where I’m just a tourist for a few minutes every week.
Switching my phone locale to a language I don’t understand. This mimics a lower-literacy experience and shows me how intuitive the design and visual indicators of a product are when I can’t read the words. We’ve also found this a helpful tool in some design critiques — how clear is the design if we can’t understand the words?
Heavily using accessibility settings. To mimic a lower-visibility experience, one product manager on my team made us “low-vis glasses” — cheap drugstore glasses with a few tiny pieces of paper taped to the lenses — which we wore as we went through normal tasks on our phone. In another workshop we turned off our phone screens entirely and tried to navigate through talkback interfaces.
These are just a few very coarse suggestions, and I know there are many more ideas out there for how to understand the people who use our products.
The hardest part of these exercises hasn’t been coming up with ideas; it’s actually experiencing the pain of trying them. The first few days switching to another device operating system is always painful, and I know I’m not as productive until I adjust. An hour wearing low-vis glasses makes me feel vulnerable and exhausted — things I prefer not to feel. Even reading negative reviews of the products I work on makes me feel defensive.
But, as with all growth, I find those uncomfortable moments are exactly when I learn the most. That’s when I’m forced into an experience I don’t generally have, and that’s the best way to understand how more people in our broad audience actually use our products.