Experience Design

Empathy: The Business Value of Experience Design (Part 1 of 8)

This is the second in a series of blog posts sharing the results of our study on the business value of experience design. In this post, we explore the value of empathy: revealing how users think, perceive, and interact with digital products and how those product experiences help make their lives easier.

The history of technology – especially digital technology – is filled with great ideas that didn’t quite work out as expected. The Microsoft Zune is almost a case study in product flops. The Segway is still really cool, but do you know anyone who owns one? Google Glass is science fiction come-to-life but it was cancelled after a couple of years. We are constantly enamored by new technology and romanced by a new possibility that we didn’t know existed. After all, we have technology to thank for our very way of life: air conditioning, modern plumbing, refrigeration, DoorDash. We are so enamored, in fact, that sometimes we put all of our faith in the technology alone to come through. But the reality is that the technology works with you, not for you, and in the Age of the Customer, it’s more important than ever to realize that products only exist for the people who use them.

That sounds obvious and intuitive, but what it’s really getting at is putting other matters aside (Can it be done? How much will it cost? How long will it take?) so you can first ask: “What problem does this solve for my customer? What will this product even do for them?”  That can be a challenging shift in priorities. But it also takes a change in mind set as project teams get off the ground. It means understanding who your users and customers are in the first place. It means understanding the jobs and tasks they need to get done. It means understanding the barriers and friction points getting in the way. It also takes an appreciation for the pressures, distractions, and emotions surrounding them. Putting all of this together gives us a powerful insight that is arguably the most powerful design tool: empathy.  Empathy helps a first-time home buyer through a mortgage application. Empathy helps the construction crew leader get the supplies ordered for the job the next day. Empathy helps parents find the right specialists when their child is sick.

Smart experience design ultimately helps you build a better, more effective product because that product is simply doing what the user needs.  But great design is also knowing how to use the product elements to their advantage. Decisions on features, dialogs, alerts, imagery, knowing when to scroll and when to hit “next” add up to the overall success of a digital experience and build on both empathy and raw design talent. These interactions add up to product experiences that not only solve user problems, but they reduce friction and frustration between you and your users. Over time, these experiences come to define the brand itself, eclipsing traditional efforts at building brands through aesthetics and taglines.

As a force multiplier, strong, empathic design teams who also have deep industry and category experience (for example, member portals and the onboarding process) can jumpstart project teams weeks and even months ahead by starting with a very focused customer expectation. Furthermore, a strong design team can identify up to 30 percent of unnecessary engineering costs by cutting out low-priority features and setting up reusable components. Really well-designed products can be so intuitive, they can materially reduce the support and training burden on the organization.

Empathy has been described by some designers as “scraping away all the noise and junk to get down to what the user really needs so that the design presents itself.” For many designers, empathy is design.

Next in this series we’ll share how experience design works to drive user behavior towards specific business outcomes.

About the Author

Jim Hertzfeld is Principal and Chief Strategist for Perficient, and works with clients to make their customers and shareholders happy through insanely great digital experiences.

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