Episode 20 Building Design Solutions Through Empathy

In the latest edition of Season 3 of Thoughtcast by Onething, Manik (Co-Founder, Onething) is joined by Venky (UX Lead, Onething). They exchange anecdotes about what empathy means to them as designers and what their journey has been like. While covering their narratives about the significance of empathy in design, the discussion culminates in discussing how to understand the needs of a user as a designer and pay attention to the underlying issues and find expedient solutions to them. Furthermore, Venky’s take on a comprehensive guide about what position empathy holds in design thinking pushes the urge to think about empathy being the cornerstone of any successful design undertaking. The duo then climbs up the hierarchy of empathizing with every individual in the design creation queue - from designers, and developers to stakeholders.

Episode Transcript

[Divanshu]

Hey, everyone. Welcome to Season 3 of Thoughtcast by Onething.  This time, it is going to be much more candid, with way more interesting guests. And I’m seriously, very excited about this season.

In fact, we are shooting the first season right in my house, with Sonakshi and my team. My house is converted into a studio.

[Manik]

Welcome to Thoughtcast by Onething season 3, guys. Today I have Venky here, the most theoretical designer we have at Onething.

[Venky]

Do you mean I am a designer in theory or?

[Manik]

“Theoretical Designer”

[Venky]

Ah, okay. Fair enough.

[Manik]

Somebody who knows more theory than I’ve ever met. We’re going to be discussing empathy today. What is it, and how is it important? How to go about it? What exactly should designers know about empathy? And how to bring it into your own designs and make them better.

Right. So I realized, I mean, in the last few weeks, a few months, actually, we have started taking a lot of time for our research phase. Which used to be about a week. And now it’s a month and more. Surprisingly, clients have also agreed to it. The most part of it is taken by meeting users or interviewing them, understanding them as much as possible, to understand the problem as deeply as possible. Which I think is empathy. What does it mean to you?

[Venky]

That’s actually really well-put. Empathy in design from my standpoint is not just understanding a problem and then leading it to a solution. Let’s establish the fact that we build not products but solutions, right?

And to build a solution, you have to obviously know the problem statement in order to build that solution exactly as much as you can.

But I think where we, as designers lack, is sometimes, we just look at a problem statement quite objectively. We don’t look at the underlying issues, problems, or the objectives, or indirect objectives that lie there.

And that is where I think empathy comes into play, where you try to understand and live in the shoes of your user. We dig deep into “why do they need the solution you’re building?” That helps you create that narrative within the product, which can lead to a viable solution

[Manik]

It’s exactly like actors, right? In the Dark Night, the joker went into that hole. Yeah, absolutely. Staying in a hotel alone and all that because he wanted to be empathetic about the role, as much as he could do.

[Venky]

Absolutely.

[Manik]

Right. And that is our job in a way as designers also. As much as we could know the users, right now I think we still are on the surface of it. We still kind of try to understand the user, try to talk about the problems. But do you think we go deep enough or we go too deep

[Venky]

In some products, you will need to go in very deep. For example, the app that we built for parents and children, over there child development is the paramount thing a parent wants.

Right. So how deep can you go there? No matter how deep you dig, you’ll never find that objective. Or the issues a parent faces, even if you try and put yourself in those shoes, if you don’t have a child, you will not know. However, you also have it on the surface level, for example, if you are building, say a regular dashboard.

That is also a solution for a problem that exists within an organization. Right. But over there, you don’t really have to think about what the day-to-day of a person looks like. Or what mood is he opening the dashboard in and things like that? Right? Because at the end of the day, it works for them.

Right. So emotions might not play as big a role here. And I think that’s where empathy really kicks in. Is that how emotional you want your solution to be?

[Manik]

I mean, why not? As emotional as it can be, right? The best scenario would be if you’re building and you would see, if you pick up the most successful products in history, those were made by people for themselves.

Because they understood their problems so deeply, they could solve it better. Take Facebook or wordle, you showed me the other day. So things like these that made for themselves and which is why it picks up so well.

[Venky]

No, I absolutely agree. Wordle, I think, is a great example. That was like a labor of love and it shows, you know, because it’s such a simple game and yet it is so addictive that we keep coming back to it every day. You have a streak, you have a win ratio, and you can share your results, like it leads. So this is, I think, where empathy also comes into play. It’s not just, you know, providing that solution. It’s also about what else does the product allow you to do?

In terms of how it’s not just about engagement or stickiness of the app. It’s none of that, right? It’s about that narrative within that product. Which gets confused with storytelling a lot, which I think we were discussing the other day. A product narrative are solutions within the product that lead credence to the bigger solution that exists, which again, you have to have those emotions connect every step of the way.

For example, how we start our research, right? We started with discovery and I think this was something you were talking about. How stakeholders don’t get any empathy.

[Manik]

Absolutely. I mean, so when you talk about empathy, right? You’re building a product. You’re not just building it for the end-users, right.

There is a business objective to it. There is a technical capability related to it. And these are all your stakeholders who you should be empathetic towards. So, how do you go about it? Because in design schools or design books, whatever you have been taught is to understand the users and empathize with them, right? Who will empathize with these business people and the developers here?

[Venky]

That’s a great point, right? And I think this comes up a lot, that every step of the way we try and build that empathy, I think it starts with the stakeholders. Because only if you understand the people who are building that solution. And I’m not going to call it a product.

At the end of the day, it is a solution, what you’re building. If you do not look at it from their perspective, their KPIs are tied into this, right? Their bonuses are tied into this. There are families dependent on paychecks that come through the solution.

You have to think about those things. So if a person is telling you that you’re building a trombone, you have to be empathetic and understand why they’re seeing that. And then going on from the discovery, we go into the user research side of things. That’s right. And what we tend to do there is, again, look at people as just objectively as numbers or user groups, but it’s, you know, that’s boiling it down to such a basic thing that, “Oh, you are a type ‘A’ persona. You are a type ‘B’ persona. It doesn’t work that way.

[Manik]

I think this is one of the most difficult phases of product design. This lifecycle. Right? I mean, If we, what we’ve changed in the last six months, right. You empathize with users, business people, developers. It’s still easy to empathize with users and build a solution for them.

But imagine now when you have constraints from business and development. So,  it’s a designer’s skill in a way to be able to satisfy or build something. Which appeals to all three of or all four of these stakeholders. Right now, in this whole design thinking concept and the way we have been doing design, it’s mostly empathy that is mostly related to the problem, right

When you’re figuring out the problem, getting deeper into it, you empathize, that’s the step defined in the design thinking. It does not emphasize the effect of doing that exercise on a solution. I mean, if you build an empathetic product, you’ll have a much better solution, like in a way, a sustainable, more ethical solution.

Yeah. Right. For an example, wordle again, right. You cannot build a nonethical product when you’re building something for yourself.

[Venky]

Yeah, absolutely. And it also comes in by being observant. You know, I think that’s something that is also missed. As designers, you have to constantly observe and absorb observing what is actually being used by the users.

Right. And trying to apply that. Like the solution already exists, right? Which is working. Why are you trying to reinvent the wheel? Reiterate the wheel? Definitely. But don’t reinvent it. And I think that comes in through those moments of observation and understanding of why your solution was built in the first place.

So empathy is more than just trying to figure out the problem, it’s empathizing with the problem. The entire process needs to be empathy-driven and then solved through proper narrative in each step of the way.

[Manik]

So there is a process of design thinking, right? Defined by. Tom and David Kelly, which is the same thing being taught in colleges, is the same thing being used by designers out there. But we have been in this industry for 10, 12 years now.

What do you think you would want to change in that process? And I’m sure it can’t be one route that fits all. Depends on product to product users, to users, but what are some kind of suggestions or iterations you would want to put in that based on your experiences?

[Venky]

That’s a great question. Couple of things. I definitely changed the way that user interviews are conducted because firstly, calling it user interviews just makes it seem like you’re asking questions to reach a solution or to just validate your assumptions around the solution that you’ve already imagined in your own head.

[Manik]

How do you even define those questions? 

[Venky]

Yeah, exactly. You know, I would say people should be taught how to have a conversation with their users.

[Manik]

I think user interviews should be a conversation, not an interview.

[Venky]

Exactly. Like see how people usually talk about the products that they use? Do they go like,  “oh, I love the way that this wishlist button on the top left there.” Nobody looks like that, man. Nobody talks like that. You don’t, they talk about the ease of use. They talk about the other problems that they’re facing with the product. If there is a review, someone has passionately written, like two paragraphs about it.

It is probably triggered by a very human emotion. And the only way you can sort of get a baseline for all those emotions is by having a conversation.

[Manik]

And a conversation like a friend, not a “Transactional User Interview”.

[Venky]

Yeah. I’ve seen people go from question (A) to question (B), to (C), (D). For example, we are working with this automotive brand, very exciting by the way.

[Manik]

Something that can not be named!

[Venky]

With this automotive brand, one of the things that we ask them is how long these people have been part of this brand through buying their products, right? And for us in our heads, this brand is like, “oh, cult”  and all of that. But for a lot of people, it was just a daily commute where they didn’t care much about it.

[Manik]

We shouldn’t even call it user interviews, we should call it a conversation. Name it something else so that it becomes something.

[Venky]

That’s how I start conversations with my users. I let them know that, “Hey, I know on the calendar invite, it says user interview. But it’s not, it’s more of a conversation. And all we’re trying to do here is understand how we can make this experience better for you. So feel free to tell us whatever is wrong.

[Manik]

Be like “I am here to know you man”.

[Venky]

That’s the attitude you should go in with. I have to know you as a person, not for me to fit you as a persona somewhere, or to have you as a nameless data somewhere. No, I’m here to get to know you.

[Manik]

I mean, we go into these, again, interviews with the mindset of getting the answers to our questions. That’s where it gets wrong. Right? Imagine you have your questions listed down, but you’re not going question by question. You’re talking to them like a 10-year-old friend, right.

And going way beyond these questions as well, because these are the questions you prepared. And if you go in an interview fashion, you will only get answers to those questions. But there may be a lot of other things actually, which they may tell you which are ultimately useful for a better product.

[Venky]

That’s the understanding. You’re getting the active knowledge of the questions you ask. But there needs to be that understanding that whatever they are not saying is possibly more important. That’s where tacit knowledge comes into play.

[Manik]

Who do you empathize with? How do you empathize? And  when you empathize with them? And it changes with every product, with every problem?

[Venky]

Yeah, absolutely. And I think that’s one thing, obviously, the user interviews and looks at your users as people rather than your means to an end or your KPI fulfillment. That needs to change for sure.

The other thing that needs to change is getting a better understanding of how to build a narrative in your product. I think you just showed me before this, you showed me the Apple email. It just had two words.

Peak performance.

That was the email right? That’s the narrative. You’ve let the user imagine the rest of it. Is it a new empty chip? Is it a new iPhone? What is it? We don’t know, but we’re going to go and find out because interest has peaked. That’s the narrative. The narrative is an enigma in that scenario, right?

If you’re building for an automotive brand with a cult following, but also like 60% of users being commuters. The narrative there is more than just a vehicle.

[Manik]

Brevity can be highly evocative.

[Venky]

Yes. I think that is what you need to learn. How to tell a good story. Not storytelling. Not the book-ish one. A good story can be done in six words.

[Manik]

Actually, how to create a story or narrative which you can tell the user. Because if you tell them, “Click on the right side of the home page, wish-listing your items, looking at the wishlist, that’s too transactional. They are not going to remember your app this way. It has to be intuitive enough and that can only be done once you go to their level of technological understanding and build accordingly.

[Venky]

It doesn’t need to be a big deal. Just build for a person, just one person, and then watch your product take flight from there.

[Manik]

But what do you think about products like WhatsApp? the whole world is their users. All kinds of people, kids of 10 years and old people of 70 years and how they have been solving it for them? How would they create something which is equally intuitive for such a wider audience

[Venky]

Because they’ve created a very simple solution.

[Manik]

Are saying simple solutions can be used by people of all ages?

[Venky]

If need be. Yeah. Let’s look at it like this, they started by targeting a set of users, right? Limited set of users like early millennials or late gen X-ers really got into it. After the BBM era.

[Manik]

It came in to replace the SMS.

[Venky]

Exactly. And that seemed like an elegant solution: “ Use it on your data”.  And at that time, If you remember, SMS used to cost money and had a limited number of SMS. 60 characters. And like a lot of things and constraints that people needed to get over.

Especially after the ease of BBM and BBM groups and things like that, this was essentially a solution which said, “Oh, just have a conversation” and that was it. That’s the solution, right? How many steps does it take for you to have a conversation with someone on WhatsApp? What is it? Open WhatsApp, open the contact. That’s a very elegant solution, right?

And whatever updates they have made, they have never touched that solution. And it’s also a ported solution, right? SMS they used to use back in the day to have a solution that connects emotionally. And that is why you need empathy. Because your solution needs to not only take care of the problem but take care of the emotions behind the problem or the emotions of the problem leads to.

[Manik]

Yeah. Exactly. Coming back to the point, WhatsApp’s way of empathizing with the users would be very different.  Then, somebody like Airtel, we’re working with. Very different audience, very limited audience, and very different expectations. So I think WhatsApp has done a pretty good job at understanding the expectations of these users and then building something for them, which is what the whole concept of empathizing is.

[Venky]

Yeah. In fact, it’s great to bring up Airtel. Because what I just realized talking to you is the fact that we’ve built a platform for them, which is essentially a virtual assistant. So we’ve built a solution which is going to be a solution further on.  It’s one thing that the business is building out is the virtual assistant, right?

But that virtual assistant is going to be used by the users of that business. Our users are the other business. Right. But they have further users who need to find a solution through that virtual assistant. So not only do we have to build it in this way, it’s a pseudo solution for the next set of users.

[Manik]

Yeah. And I think that has taught us a lot as well in the last couple of years. Just before the user interviews, now it’s an equally important step in our process to identify our users first of all. Who do we need to empathize with and who all do we need to empathize with? Because it’s not just the end-users.

It can be multiple of those as well. Consider a possibility. We were talking about it right yesterday. WhatsApp has so many user groups, right? 10-year-old to an 80-year-old again. They still serve the same solution to all of them. Take age and onboarding and customize the interface for each. Let’s say these 10 user groups, why don’t they do that?

[Venky]

Because again, now this comes back to what you said about the developers. We need to empathize with them. Like, how do they build something like this and keep it sustainable, keep it working and make sure it doesn’t crash. If everyone is able to customize it, according to what they want, which WhatsApp lets you do to a certain degree, you can customize like the backroom customizing.

[Manik]

Customizing the intuitiveness of it, that they can’t allow.

[Venky]

Because again, that puts a load of the developer.

[Manik]

And the business also. Now they have to meet 10 different apps.

[Venky]

And imagine the number of screens. Oh my God.  But you know, I think it is empathy with yourself as a designer that you will know you can’t do this. That is important as well.

[Manik]

I think some good learnings have come out of this discussion already, which we also like everyone at Onething also should follow.

And I hope, I hope people kind of change their perspective of this step called empathize with your users.

[Venky]

Oh, for the love of God, don’t research what empathy means. Like the irony of that. No, thank you so much for having this conversation with me.

Great. So we’ll be coming up with even more interesting and insightful podcasts this season. Please keep a watch on our latest updates.

[Divanshu]

Thank you guys for listening. Keep coming back. We’ll be back again soon with a lot of good content, please subscribe to Thoughtcast by Onething on Spotify.  We are also on YouTube now, with all our podcasts and our video podcasts. So keep listening and also keep watching.

Thank you!

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