“I’ve never met anybody from any team that hasn’t been transformed by meeting real people in their environments. Some of them are shocked at how much they’ve changed after the meetings.”Dr. Sam Ladner, Author of Practical Ethnography and Mixed Methods

Solving Product – Dr Sam Ladner on Building Customer Empathy

For the past decade, Dr. Sam Ladner has been leading user research in some of the largest tech companies on the market (Amazon, Microsoft, and Workday). A major challenge that she has faced in those roles has been in developing customer empathy within the teams she works with.

Over the years, Sam has come up with a set of strategies for enhancing empathy.

First, she begins by assessing the organization’s familiarity with human-centered principles. She does this by trying to understand how teams make sense of user behaviors.

If they make homo economicus rational inferences, then familiarity is likely low, because it indicates they are focused on the concrete and “rational” aspects of human behavior, rather than the deeply felt and even subconscious nature of why humans do what they do. If they try to understand the humans behind the behaviors, then they tend to be more in tune with human motivations.

To help develop empathy, Sam looks for opportunities to bring customers into the office.

Building Customer Empathy in the Gaming Industry

For example, when she started working at Microsoft, she noticed that it was very common for people to observe usability tests remotely or behind a glass; product teams were always kept at a distance from the users. It was easy for people to leave the room, check their emails, or tune out certain parts of the conversations.

At the time, the gaming industry was facing a lot of issues around inclusion. Sam wanted to leverage an important upcoming gaming panel for women, and help build awareness around the issues that women were facing. Her goal was to make sure teams heard first-hand from the participants.

Sam writes in her book, Practical Ethnography: “You can read all the research reports you want, but to sit there and listen to somebody tell you about how they love gaming and how they’ve been chased out. You can’t ignore it. It changes you.”

When somebody is physically sitting in front of you talking about an experience, it’s very hard not to listen.

Bringing users in without any of the previous separations helped build customer empathy with the team. They were able to get a more nuanced understanding of the realities of their customers. This proximity changed them, and it changed the way they made decisions afterwards.

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This post in an excerpt from Solving Product. If you enjoyed the content, you'll love the new book. You can download the first 3 chapters here →.

Categories: Case Study