Empathy Research

On ideas, research, & augmented reality

To build a successful digital product, it’s not enough to have a cool feature idea. Perhaps a fashionable feature is the right answer sometimes but first, we must build solutions to our users’ basic needs. To do that, we need to know who the product’s users are. In other words, before you build a chair, make sure you find out who’s going to sit in it.

Would you rather design an app with a fashionable feature, or an app that someone truly needs?

Mobile apps (and websites and their digital friends) are often confused with advertisements. The mentality goes something like this: “we’ll build something with our logo on it that has cool features, looks pretty, and it will reflect well on our company.” But these projects often end up with pointless features or important things lacking.

Try, instead, to think of a mobile app as a physical product. Would you build a chair that looked good but couldn’t support your weight? Would you build a television that fit nicely with the furniture but that had no speakers? Would you continue using a spoon that was build out of a newly discovered, fancy alloy but was too small to hold any liquid?

Why is a mobile app like a physical product? Because, like a chair, it lives in your immediate environment, it is expected to be used multiple times, it (hopefully) has a function, and you don’t spend the majority of your time sitting on it and thinking about the person who built it (I see you, Eames fans).

Unfortunately, unlike a physical product, apps are seen as manifestations of brilliant ideas than a product that’s fit-for-purpuse. To design an app, it seems, we only need an idea and someone to make a series of good decisions from a boardroom or their studio flat.
Idea by Tony Dowler

Research isn’t asking people for ideas

Everybody has ideas. Corporate brainstorming sessions are a perfect natural habitat for a multiplicity of ideas. Likewise, since the launch of the App Store, app ideas have become a staple in pub conversations. But how do you turn an idea into a set of decisions that will eventually birth an app people will use and enjoy?

The problem is that app users are different from the app creator. This turns making decisions on their behalf into a difficult task. It still amazes me how many people don’t realize that the way they would use something is not universal. The difficult truth is that end-users think, behave, and make decisions differently from those in charge of app-building.

But how can asking people what they want from a future product useful for building it?

The hugely popular e-newsletter platform MailChimp recently went through a big redesign. To make sure they do it right, their research team spent time with their customers in their work environments understand how they use MailChimp in their unique context.

Research showed the MailChimp team that some of their assumptions about users were wrong. For example, they assumed advertising agencies and independent communications consultants would have different needs because they work in radically different environments. But the research showed these two groups were very similar. They each managed multiple campaigns for multiple clients and had the same concerns while using MailChimp.

So how does augmented reality come into this?

If only I had a penny for the number of meetings I attended in which I heard the sentence: “Oh, and we also need to have augmented reality (AR).” No part of that sentence has a user need embedded in it. There’s a reason AR elicits eyerolls and disappointed sighs: in most cases, it’s included for the sake of coolness and creates a pointless experience. Still, if you ask people in a focus group for feature ideas, AR always comes up. So what’s going on?

When you ask users the right questions, they don’t respond with features. They respond with needs. When MailChimp went out to do research, they didn’t hold a focus group and ask users for their wish lists. They spend time with individuals in their natural habitat to see how MailChimp fit into their lives. That is how you uncover needs.

Needs are tricky things to uncover but they’re amazing for your business because of two things: 1. Needs can be broken up into multiple features, so they’re a well of opportunity for your roadmap. 2. Needs give you the chance to do your job: find solutions to a problem, instead of implementing other people’s ideas.

Understanding your users helps you to build better products. It gives you empathy toward users but also many practical benefits. Making day-to-day decisions about what to include and exclude, how to implement features, and what to improve should always be done through the lens of the end-user. Perhaps a fashionable feature is the right answer sometimes but first, you must build solutions to your user’s basic needs. In other words, before you build a chair, make sure you find out who’s going to sit in it.


Further reading:

MailChimp’s blog post: New MailChimp User Persona Research

Google Ventures design staff blog: Guide to Research


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By Evgenia (Jenny) Grinblo

Evgenia (Jenny) Grinblo is a user experience practitioner at London-based mobile agency, Future Workshops. A native Russian-Israeli, she approaches her practice with a sociological mind and a passion for facilitating team work. When away from her iMac, she is a foosball apprentice and an occasional speaker on empathy in design. Follow Jenny on Twitter @grinblo.