How customer empathy drives human-centered design

Developing meaningful connections with consumers helps teams make better products and services. 

In a business age ruled by online commerce, companies have understandably turned to technology to help track—and understand—the digital customer journey. But no matter how many data points businesses collect, numbers don’t tell the whole story. If data is going to improve the customer experience (CX)—and business at large—then it’s critical to share information with the teams that can translate valuable insights into practical actions. Leading e-commerce players don’t just stop at knowing their numbers; they go further and empathize with their customers. According to many top CEOs, innovative product design is one of the most significant areas in which customer understanding should drive decisions.

To evaluate the emerging trend of CX and the importance of customer empathy for driving business, UserTesting, a leader in video-based human insight, released an October 2021 survey of 200 CEOs across North America, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific region. Among the executives surveyed, 60% led small- and medium-sized companies (up to 250 employees and 251 to 1,000 employees, respectively), and 40% helmed large enterprises with more than 1,000 employees. UserTesting supplemented that CEO research by interviewing experts at the forefront of the customer empathy movement. Here’s what the survey revealed about empathetic product design.

Channeling holistic empathy, from the C-suite to consumers

“Human-centered design and empathy are inextricably linked,” explains David Schonthal, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “Human-centered design or design thinking works on the principle that at the end of every product—at the end of every service, at the end of every business process—is a human being. The most innovative companies in the world understand things about their users that their competitors have not yet figured out. It’s really difficult to create value unless you truly comprehend the progress that people are seeking in their lives.”

Through the UserTesting survey, CEOs revealed that they consider customer understanding to be particularly critical for certain team functions, yet there’s room to grow. A full 38% said empathy was crucial for marketing/brand-building, as well as operations/production and design/prototyping. But just over a quarter of CEOs (26%) prioritized empathy for product ideation. To successfully—and consistently—win over consumers today, businesses need a deep knowledge of their customers’ needs, expectations, and feelings to shape every part of product development. Leaders who are keenly attuned to their customers can glean more than just transactional information; they can use those learnings to influence the design of winning products and services.

Data sets remain critical for businesses to know their customers, but that’s just one part of the story. To discover the “why” behind the “what” of consumer behavior, it’s necessary to take a more personal approach, according to Schonthal. “I can probably learn as much, if not more, from deeply interviewing 10 people about what really causes them to do the things they do than I can learn from a survey of 1,000 people,” he says. “To me, it’s a paradox to discover empathic insights through big data sets. Empathetic insights come from a deep understanding of individual human beings.”

Many CEOs are leaning toward that holistic approach. More than three-quarters of those surveyed said they anticipate a shift away from survey-based analytics toward more granular, personal insights into what’s driving the customer experience. “A mature, customer-driven organization starts with buy-in from the C-suite. All of the C-level executives must be fully bought in on the importance and value of empathy and the customer experience,” says CEO Andy MacMillan of UserTesting. “There is no substitute for seeing, speaking to, and hearing from customers directly. It is becoming integral for organizations, regardless of industry, to adopt the systems and technologies that help them connect with their customers.”

Moving from clicks to connections

When making business decisions, CEOs are (necessarily) evolving how they understand, empathize with, and learn from their customers. “I think we’ve become so oriented around digital, clicks, process, and all these things that we’ve forgotten how to make an emotional connection with a customer,” says Gregg Johnson, CEO of Invoca, the company behind an A.I.-powered platform that derives insights from analyzing the speech and text of conversations between customers and sales agents. Regarding customer connections, CEOs surveyed ranked direct interaction as most important overall (45%), followed by customer feedback reports and market research reports (tied at 35%). 

Translating information gleaned from interviews into manageable insights is easier than ever before, thanks to new technologies that predict customer needs and add value to the customer journey. “Fifteen years ago, there was no way to convert soft data into hard data, other than by manually entering it,” Johnson notes. “But today, there’s a lot of technology that can help you take that soft data and convert it into hard data. So, for example, if I’m inferring behavioral elements by looking at data, a lot of A.I. models will have a predictive confidence score that will indicate if I’m guessing accurately.”

But empathic, human-centered product design requires one last step to be successful, according to Schonthal: representation. Do product-design leaders directly relate to the needs and views of the people who’d use their designs? Schonthal cites a health care product company with a chronic disease management platform as an example. 

“They went to great lengths to hire people who were themselves managing chronic disease, such as diabetes,” he explains. “What you learn when you have people managing diabetes on the team is that competing companies refer to people with this condition as type-1 or type-2 diabetics. So, one of the first principles the designers established was: ‘We won’t call people by the name of their diseases.’ Why is it that if you have cancer, you are not ‘a cancer.’ If you have COPD, you are not ‘a COPD.’ But if you have diabetes, you’re a diabetic. That may sound like a subtle difference, but if you understand what that means emotionally, that radically changes your perspective on how to design for people.”

These human connections are where companies can find the biggest impact and create products that change the lives of their customers. “That’s where you have the chance to really shine and differentiate yourself from what other companies do,” says Johnson. “It’s data that’s helping you behind the scenes, but the human connection gives you a megaphone that has 10 times the impact of that data.”

To learn more on the emerging trend of CX and the importance of customer empathy, download The ROI of Customer Empathy.