Want to Improve Your Customer Experience? Start With Empathy

Think back to the last really frustrating digital user experience you encountered. Whether you were making a purchase, booking an appointment, submitting documentation, or something else, you likely struggled to complete an important task or find the information you needed. You may have chalked all that unnecessary friction up to shoddy design. But dig a bit deeper and you’ll find that poor UX isn’t just the result of bad design or lackluster technical systems. It’s a failure to center on users and their needs.

That frustrating experience? It simply wasn’t crafted with you in mind.

The same thing may apply to your digital experiences. For example, your member portal may be designed in a way that reflects your internal processes but runs counter to your members’ assumptions and mental models. If your customer satisfaction levels aren’t where they need to be, you may be dealing with an empathy deficit.

When it comes to creating a world-class customer experience for your organization, you must start by cultivating empathy for your members. That means getting to know their needs, frustrations, and desires before you ever crack open a design tool or map out a user interface.

Design Thinking Puts Empathy at the Forefront

At UpTop, we use a practice called design thinking to inject empathy into all of our UX research and design activities.

Design thinking is a structured process that helps teams like yours approach problem-solving from a user-centric mindset. It forces you to cultivate a deeper understanding of your users and their motivations in the beginning phases of development so you can directly address those needs in your solutions.

The design thinking process is made up of five phases, including:

  1. Empathize
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

As you can see, design thinking gives empathy top billing. But how? What does it mean to cultivate empathy for your customers? And what are the tactical techniques you can use to build that deeper understanding?

How to Cultivate Empathy in Your Digital Experiences

There are many ways to build empathy for your customers. We use a mix of qualitative and quantitative research methods and activities to unearth your users’ pain points and motivations. These include:

User Interviews

When we conduct user interviews, we use open-ended questions to get at the what, how, and why of their behaviors and reveal their mental models. We also note physical evidence like body language, tone of voice, cadence of speech, etc. These findings combine to create a more complete picture of what users are thinking and feeling.

Walkthroughs/Contextual Inquiry

What people say and do can be very different things. So when it comes to understanding what your users really need, we don’t just take them at their word.

With observational user research, including walkthroughs and contextual inquiry, we step back and watch as users interact with your service, product, or tool. Doing so provides a wealth of information as we directly observe areas where users experience errors and confusion. This method can be especially useful in establishing a baseline and identifying areas for improvement.

User Personas

Creating robust user personas is another way to cultivate empathy for your users. Of course, you already know your user demographics by the numbers. But putting names, faces, and personalities to those data points makes them seem much more human, thus driving empathy.

Once you see your users as familiar individuals rather than faceless strangers, your ability to design solutions that satisfy both your business problem and your users’ needs will improve immensely. These personas should be shared widely within your organization so that your entire team keeps them top of mind as they innovate and troubleshoot problems.

When we develop personas, we make sure to consider and represent the many diverse groups that make up your market. Doing so allows us to test assumptions, consider edge cases, and design more accessible solutions.

A quick note: Marketing personas and user personas may overlap, but they aren’t the same thing. The main difference? User personas are less concerned with buying habits and more focused on behavioral patterns.

Customer Journey Maps

A customer journey map uncovers the many layers of your users’ experience by documenting each and every touchpoint within a product or service from start to finish. For each step in the journey, we note:

  • Users’ actions and intended goals
  • Who or what they interact with
  • What questions they have
  • Any pain points they experience
  • Their emotional response

In particular, recording users’ emotions is critical for cultivating empathy for their experience. There are sure to be ebbs and flows, but those details can give you more precise data on which parts of your journey need the most attention.

Empathy In Action: MattressFirm’s UX Audit

To see design thinking’s empathy-elevating impact in action, let’s take a look at a UX audit we conducted for MattressFirm. This well-known mattress and bedding company asked us to assess their post-purchase customer journey. They knew they needed to improve the experience, but they weren’t sure where to begin. In this case, our solution was to develop a set of detailed user personas — then show how each of those personas fared when faced with a particular post-purchase challenge.

MattressFirm already had six marketing personas, and we used those as the jumping-off point for our user personas. By applying site metrics and Google Analytics data, we added behavioral dimensions to the existing personas. In addition, we fleshed out each persona with names, traits, and characteristics to further humanize them and build empathy.

Next, we assigned each of our personas to one of six post-purchase scenarios, including receiving a delivery, rescheduling a delivery, and returning a purchase. To make our customer journeys come to life, we used role playing as we interacted with MattressFirm, including chatting with agents online, calling customer service, and receiving deliveries. While moving through the audit, we applied our personas’ unique characteristics. Our interactions were informed by what each person would want to know, where they might be at a particular time, when they had to interact or make a decision, and how they might feel in each situation.

Finally, we documented the entire experience in a customer journey map. This included a storyboard image at each stage in the user journey to represent each persona’s actions, location, and emotional state. Doing so allowed us to show the very clear emotional roller coaster that took place as our personas moved through their respective post-purchase journeys.

In the end, it was almost impossible not to empathize with the difficulties and frustrations our well-formed personas faced. And that made it much easier to identify the most pressing pain points and shortcomings in the post-purchase process — and propose user-centric solutions crafted with our personas in mind.

Leverage Empathy to Improve Your Customer Experience

Empathy is at the heart of all truly great user experiences. It’s also the not-so-secret key to increasing customer engagement. Increased engagement leads to brand loyalty and, ultimately, improved business outcomes.

Ready to step into your customers’ shoes and design an experience that is perfectly tailored to meet their needs? Let’s get to work.