When we download a new app, we’re full of anticipation and we can’t wait to fire it up. We want to see all the bells and whistles, and we might look to our social media groups for tips on hacks or hidden features.
But do we think about the process that the developer has gone through to create our shiny new source of fun or productivity?
Does the possible impact of rogue or unbridled AI bother us?
Perhaps we give a passing thought to the commonalities of our new piece of software and the wonders of SpaceX. Or maybe we picture thousands of coders working for startups or digital giants, creating the next amazing app or device.
It would certainly be no surprise if our minds didn’t immediately go to the concept of empathy. But if we were to be asked which companies or products we admired, or what apps or digital experiences we identified with, we’d most likely think about experiences that made us feel good or comfortable or fulfilled.
Those of us who aren’t designers or product managers might not relate the experience to empathy, but the people behind the best products, the best digital experiences, the best apps certainly do.
Developers are by nature motivated by the tech, making the programme work, ensuring ease-of-use. But there is a difference between designing systems and apps that meet the specs and match user requirements, and engaging at the deeper emotional level that truly connects with the target audience. As consumers we all know brands or retail interactions that have connected with us emotionally.
In the B2B context, developers don’t necessarily engage at quite such a deep level, but understanding as much as possible about the people we engage with, including their desired outcome, challenges and aspirations is essential to delivering that next breakout software hit.
So how do we develop software products that imbue functional design with empathy?
The key is connection
The dictionary will tell us that empathy simply means understanding how someone else feels. Of course the developer can’t know everything about their end-users’ feelings, but we instinctively know that ‘connection’ lies at the heart of their desires.
The first step in building with empathy is making that connection, understanding that the purely practical use of the app being developed is not its sole or higher purpose. And it must be kept in mind that the target audience is not homogenous – developers must apply digital ethics, avoid unconscious bias and allow for equality and fairness.
Tips for developers
Here are some best practices developers should follow to make that vital connection, and start building with empathy.
- Ensure the user base is diverse enough to accurately represent the target population including those with disabilities. Accessibility is mandatory in many countries, but in any case it should be a feature of our apps because it’s the right thing to do. It democratises interaction and is probably one of the most empathetic things we can do.
- Encourage and build our own curiosity with active listening, building a collection of user quotes, pictures and videos.
- Persona research augments the requirements process, but we can go deeper. Use open-ended questions to get the user to explain things in a way that is more revealing about their problems and desires.
- When we are considering requirements, focus on the overall solution. Broaden our thinking to understand the entire system without being confined to the specifics of the app, and combine this with rapid feedback via prototyping and other activities.
- Know how the app will really be used. We may have worked to a set of requirements leading to a specified outcome, but users are not machines. They may find a wholly new and unexpected use for the app, or their behaviour may have changed due to external circumstances.
- Look for deeper engagement. Is our digital experience the best it can be? Would the user experience be better if a chatbot were enabled? Are there features/functionality that were once limited to in-person engagements that should now be replicated in the digital experience?
Understand the end-user
We need to ensure that our developer team is not being blind-sided by their own potential biases or pre-conceived notions. Help them ground themselves in the perspective of the user and how the user thinks and feels.
Relating specifically to empathy, in our research we need to engage emotionally with users and as much as possible put ourselves into their situation. We need to apply the core principle of knowing ourselves before we can know others, and then seek to learn from others so that we can know them.
This means using a blank canvas approach in the requirements and design process, to find new ways of seeing and thereby solving a problem. We must seek to establish a deep connection and understanding of the target user by seeing the world through their eyes with the aim of providing a tailor-made solution.
With a better, deeper understanding of the end user and their experiences, their needs and their reasons for engaging, developers can build with empathy. We can create applications that provide a richer, more powerful user experience. Users will continue to demand more of their applications, and our software must evolve to meet their expectations.
Digital ethics and empathy can not only be the foundation of engaging experiences for the user, but can reduce friction in the app development process, and can foster excellent team leadership and camaraderie among the unseen army of coders developing the next great software product.
Mark Troester is the VP of Strategy, Progress