When I started out as a co-founder who passionately worked on products, I heard the term ‘empathy’ a lot more often than any other buzzword in product management.
But what is empathy?
Empathy is our ability to see the world through other people's eyes, to see what they see, feel what they feel, and experience things as they do. Of course, none of us can fully experience things the way someone else does, but we can attempt to get as close as possible, and we do this by putting aside our own preconceived ideas and choosing to understand the ideas, thoughts, and needs of others instead.
Empathy helps us gain a deeper understanding of people's emotional and physical needs, and the way they see, understand and interact with the world around them. It also helps understand how all of this has an impact on their lives generally and in specific contexts. It’s inherently subjective since there is a fair amount of interpretation involved in finding out what people mean rather than what they say. Simply put, empathy is more about actions than words.
Empathy is all about feeling with people instead of just intellectually acknowledging their situation.
But what has empathy got to do with building a product?
Turns out, a lot.
Customers want to know that products “get them.” They want companies to feel their challenges and celebrate their wins. They want brands to feel friendly, comfortable and trustworthy. It’s a feeling of “Yes, this is me” that taps into customer identity and lets brands establish connections almost like friendships.
But more importantly, it lets the product teams build better products.
One of the biggest problems the product teams face is working on the wrong problem. Without empathy, it is easy to miss out on insights about the best problem to solve or the right audience to solve that problem for.
One of the greatest examples of working on a wrong problem leading to a tragic death of the product is Facebook Home. In an attempt to make use of and monetize lock screens, Facebook developed a product called Home in 2013. The idea behind Home was that, while not in use, users’ lock screens would display a feed of updates from their Facebook account. Majority of the users found this intrusive and some users found it confusing at best. Facebook Home disappeared from the Google Playstore within a year of its launch.
Product management is like billiards—you’re rewarded for doing less more accurately. Empathy helps you do just that.
To understand empathy’s role in product design, it must be seen as more than just a thought experiment designed to boost creativity or make for an inspirational speech to your team about why your product matters.
Developing empathy starts with understanding the everyday problems consumers face.
At Compass, empathy is one of our core values. User empathy across hierarchies and for all levels of users is more critical than it is perceived.
I remember conversations with a few of my closest friends, people in my network who went on to become sales leaders across organizations, industries, and geographies. And over multiple disconnected chats, there was one thing that seemed to trouble all of them. And it was almost never about how their sales teams were not performing well, which is a pretty common complaint to have as you would assume. But their concern wasn’t even close to this.
One of their biggest problems as sales managers, was that they never knew anything about their incentives or commissions despite it being a considerable component of their pay structure. Now, as sales heads, and the fact that they are on the other side of the table is that despite running incentive programs, there is no tangible improvement in the performance of their sales managers. That is exactly what got me thinking. No matter where you are in the hierarchy of the sales pyramid, incentives are inconvenient. They are delayed, incorrect, and cumbersome.
But while hundreds of tech companies built products to solve all kinds of problems across the globe right from getting your food delivered to your doorstep within 15 minutes, or renting a cab with a click to building devices that could monitor your heart rate. Was there no way to calculate incentives with tech you would ask? Well, the answer is there were. There were hundreds of softwares that let you calculate incentives, decide ranking and help with paying incentives but never all of them.
But it wasn’t just about the sales managers or leaders. It was also inconvenient, messy, and time consuming for a lot of other stakeholders like the program admin who built these programs, to MIS executives who rolled out the rankings, to HR teams who the sales teams would constantly follow up with, and finance teams who were in charge of releasing them
That’s not all. The sales head would also be clueless about how productive his sales team is, or the CHRO would never know what is the cost of losing a sales manager or how engaged is he and the CFO still bearing the brunt of inflated costs and the CEO ultimately going bonkers about why there are still no sales?
That is exactly what Compass is built for. It is built to democratize sales incentives.
Compass is built for everyone who has got to do even moving a matchstick with sales.
In our product strategy, we tried to define the framework in a more empathetic way, which essentially meant trying to understand at a deeper level,
- The problem you are trying to solve
- Who you are solving it for
- Why you are solving the problem
- What is your solution to the problem.
With Compass, sales managers who are the end-users can participate in programs, experience the power of a community with central communication, and redeem points from 21K+ brands.
Program administrators can publish simple and complex sales programs, with live scores, earnings, nudges, and trends in under 10 minutes with just variables that do not need coding.
Human resource managers can easily engage with the sales employees on town halls and public groups as a single channel of communication.
Sales leaders of all levels, be it a team leads for a small team of 4 executives or a sales director can track their team’s performance live, real-time with scorecards and leaderboards that fosters a competitive workspace.
Compass also makes the lives of finance guys as easy as a breeze. It lets them pay with a single click and helps save tons with the on-redemption model.
The CEO too now does not have to worry about getting in sales when his team is motivated to do more.
But how did we arrive at this product you would wonder.
Building Compass took us some time, effort, and a lot of brainstorming sessions. Hundreds of coffee conversations with all stakeholders to understand what it is that they go through and what matters to them the most. And well, more importantly, to understand if we can build a revenue engine around this.
But that’s not all. We are working and speaking to our users every single day.
This reminds me of an interesting incident. One of our first paying clients is a leading logistics company in India with thousands of delivery partners using Compass. While they had redeemable points in their accounts, the redemption percentage was almost negligible. After we spoke to them, it turned out, they did not think they could buy anything with those points because they were too little. We then released a few posters with links to items on e-commerce sites that they could buy with these points thus rocketing redemption rates.
The solution may be different for each user but once you understand the problem and how each user uniquely experiences the problem, you are closer to solving the problem.
This brings me back to the reason why most products fail. Mass consumerism has been an ever-growing part of how the world operates. However, the one-size-fits-all approach to consumption and solving problems has begun to show signs of inadequacy.
The truth is, using the power of “averages” is a terrible way to design solutions for people.
Thus, with empathy, instead of designing new products to solve the problems only momentarily and superficially, we have the power to create a paradigm shift and provide a wide range of benefits packaged into a single solution. We can create new markets and move whole communities closer to higher-order needs and goals.
Being able to understand what others are feeling is critical not just to building great products, but also to building great teams. It is extremely important for leaders to understand that team members are dynamic individuals who might also be facing personal problems while shouldering their professional responsibilities.
Ultimately, it is about starting where empathy doesn’t just sound nice or make for a great tagline on your website. It will result in you and your team developing more creative, effective, and lovable products— products that truly meet the concrete and emotional needs of people you have built the product for.
Isn’t that the ultimate goal of building a product in the first place?