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My wife turned to me the other day and said “can you install apps on the Apple Watch?” That would be an innocuous question for someone looking to purchase an Apple Watch, but my wife has owned an Apple Watch for over 2 years. If you’re passionate about technology you’re probably thinking my wife sounds like your dear sweet grandmother. Would you care for some Ovaltine?
But that isn’t the case at all. My wife is in her 30’s, uses technology regularly, has a doctorate degree, and doesn’t fit any of the stereotypes you might be currently conjuring.
“What? Really? Are you serious?” That was the first thing that popped into my brain, but I’m glad I managed to keep it from coming out of my mouth. I do have my moments.
“Yeeeeees”, I replied. It came out more like a question than a statement. Then after an awkwardly long pause I asked “why?” I might have been grinning a bit.
I have to admit, my first response would have been far more satisfying, but after more than a decade of marriage, I understood that was a road I didn’t want to travel.
She patiently explained to me, with a look that can only be described as “thanks for not being an ass, this time” that she had an application on her phone that she thought would be useful on her Apple Watch. But she had never considered whether installing applications on her watch was possible. She regularly used the built-in apps on the watch, but she didn’t think of them as apps but merely features of the watch. So it had never occurred to her to question whether you could add an app to the watch. It just hadn’t come up.
All of this, when explained to me, made total sense. But my brain, trapped in my own worldview, had a hard time initially grasping her view of her smart watch.
I went over the conversation in my head later, in the way that I tend to whenever I have an interaction that feels “off” in some way. My brain tends to flag these conversations for review later… often ad nauseum.
I hope you don’t have this affliction.
Anyway, here is someone that I have known for almost 20 years, and have lived with for almost 15. She has similar life experiences to myself, similar level of education, came from the same home town, and grew up in a household with a similar socioeconomic status. This is someone that you’d think I would be able to empathize with a bit. And in some ways, I probably can. But I’m a software engineer by trade, and a big part of my identity is tied up in technology. I also work with a team of engineers and designers on a daily basis, and so I think my view of technology is just a bit skewed from the average population. It also shows how powerful the false-consensus effect can be.
The reality is simple though, she doesn’t care about or see technology in the way I do. For her, the Apple Watch is an almost perfect piece of technology. She has never had to think about how it works. The watch faces and built-in functionality she wants are easily accessible and mostly intuitive. She would probably consider the fact that she has never thought about apps in the context of her watch to be a positive thing.
But why wasn’t I able to see this?
Empathy is an Illusion
Experienced product engineers and designers talk a lot about empathy, but we are actually the least-equipped people to empathize with most users. We understand how software works at such a detailed level that we can’t freely empathize with casual users of the systems we build. The mismatch in our mental models is just too great.
When we try to build software through thought exercises and imagined empathy, what we end up doing is building software for ourselves while guessing at what someone else will need.
In the software world, guessing at what someone else needs or imagining what they need, often passes for empathy. If you really think about it, it sounds a bit crazy, but surprisingly it can work in some scenarios:
- You’re building an app that you need or want, and it turns out that a lot of other people have the same needs.
- You’re building an app in a way that makes sense to you, and it turns out there are enough other people that see things in a similar way that you do.
For example, if you’re a software engineer, and you’re building a tool that you need for your own work, then you have a reasonable chance that you can create something that will be useful to other software engineers. But quite often I talk to people who are building a piece of software for a group of users that they only have a tangential relationship with, and they haven’t done anything other than a cursory validation of their ideas with people inside of that group.
Oddly enough, I’ve talked with a number of people about building food delivery services. Most of the folks I’ve talked to though only understand this business from the ordering side of things. They haven’t run a restaurant, they don’t understand their needs or incentives. This is a recipe for failure.
If you go down that road, you’re just guessing, and whether you’re successful or not will depend largely on luck and the amount of resources you have to keep refining after you find out customers don’t really need what you’re building. Without getting in front of users early and often, you can’t learn and iterate, which are at the heart of validated learning and the lean startup process.
Seek a Deeper Empathy
So while you might get lucky, or you might share a viewpoint with some of your users, the unfortunate reality is that you can’t understand your users without having meaningful interactions with them. You can’t develop any kind of empathy without understanding what drives them, and what their needs are. They probably view the world very differently than you do and care about different things than you do. This means that you can’t think your way into their heads, you need to have discussions with them and let them tell you what they experience.
You can talk to them about your ideas, and gather their feedback. You can show them your mockups and have them talk through them. You can ask them to test your working software and watch them try to figure it out. Or more importantly, you can just sit down with them and discuss their needs, fears, and goals. Figure out what annoys them or keeps them up at night. These are the kind of interactions that form the basis of true empathy.
Finding relevant folks willing to chat can sometimes be a challenge. But if you’re solving a serious problem they have, then you should be able to find at least a few people eager to chat with you. The key is to look for them early, and engage them often. Your software will turn out immeasurably better for it.
If you’re nervous about talking to people, or you’re worried that you’ll do it wrong, I highly recommend checking out the book Talking to Humans. It is a quick read, and one of the best books I’ve come across on having effective user interviews.
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