Empathy in Product Design: How To Surprise and Delight Your Users

When it comes to product design, it's all about meeting customers where they are. Customers engage with products to achieve a goal — plain and simple. They want their needs met, problems solved, and a smooth journey from point A to B. By weaving empathy into your design process, you can score big with customer satisfaction and keep them coming back for more. 

So, buckle up and get ready to walk a mile in your customer's shoes as we explore the latest episode of the Product Builders Podcast and discover the secrets of empathy-rich design!

The examples and information in this article from our interview with Erica Kitaev. She is the Senior Director of Product Management at Thomson Reuters.

What is Empathy in Product Design?

At its core, empathy in product design can be described as continually putting your customers' needs, wants and expectations at the forefront of any design choices you make. It's all about building a relationship with your customers and really understanding the problems they're trying to solve. Though it's important to stay agile and innovative as designers, we can't lose sight of the fact that our products are built for humans with real needs and desires that need to be fulfilled.

Balancing empathy with creativity is vital in product design. It's a dance between listening to your customers and finding the sweet spot between their needs and what's possible from a design and functionality standpoint.

Empathy in product design requires being open to the push and pull of iteration. Sometimes, customers may think they want one thing, but it's our job as designers to uncover the real solution to their problem. That's why it's crucial for designers to first listen to their customer's needs and then find a balance between those needs and what's possible from a design perspective.

How to Bring More Empathy to Your Products

Aside from genuinely engaging with your users to understand their needs and goals, here are some techniques you can deploy to bring even more empathy into your product design.

Question Your Assumptions

Many product designers and managers are subject matter experts (SMEs) in their fields. This is a great thing overall and leads to effective products. However, SMEs must continually question their assumptions to avoid the trap of "self-design."

According to Erica Kitaev, Senior Director of Product Management at Thomson Reuters:

"Becoming an SME is a gift in the sense that you have a natural head start to understanding the problems you're trying to solve in your field. However, it can also be a trap because you think you know more than you know. And I think, as humans, we are always subject to that trap. We need to take inventory of our own biases and where that trap might sit. By questioning our assumptions and constantly reassessing our design choices, we are much better situated to meet the needs of our end users."

Having confidence in your design intuition and expertise is great, but don't get too comfortable with it. Sometimes, your assumptions might not be spot on. And that's okay! The key is to be willing to pivot and course correct. Want to make sure you're on the right track? Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate! Work with other teams, different departments, and your customers. By bouncing ideas off others and getting fresh perspectives, you'll be able to check your assumptions and ensure you're headed in the right direction. It's about keeping an open mind and a willingness to learn and grow.

Don’t be afraid to commit to a course of action or lean into ambiguity. But also don’t be afraid to pivot and course-correct when needed.

Surprise and Delight Your Customers

Want to blow your users' minds with your product? Of course, you do. The goal is to make their experience seamless and effortless. Flashy and fun features are all well and good, but if they don't help the user achieve their goals, they are a decoration at best. Avoid adding any frustrations to the mix. Instead, aim to "surprise and delight" your customers with your product. Give them what they need, and then throw in a little extra magic to make their experience unforgettable.

According to Erica, "To surprise and delight means to provide fresh experiences without frustrating customer expectations. Customers now really understand and appreciate what a frictionless experience with a product is like. They are trained to work with consumer products and also use specific tools in their professional lives for certain outcomes. This means they're coming to any new product with a set of expectations and notions of what a good experience should be like. Out of respect for customers' time and attention, products should be efficient and meet or exceed their expectations."

For customers to invest their time into a product, it should be easy to use and produce impressive outcomes. Again, products don't need to be flashy to be impressive. In a way, they should guide the user invisibly to their desired goal in a way that also feels good. 

To surprise and delight customers means to provide fresh experiences without frustrating expectations.

Innovate Subtly

Innovation can mean creating a "wow" moment or making subtle, impactful changes to your product. Either way, the goal is to guide users through your product in a more human-centric way. When thinking about innovation, Erica Kitaev says it can be helpful to have an overarching guide statement that aids your innovation efforts. 

According to Erica, "At Thomson Reuters, our guide statement is to 'deliver the right content, at the right level, at the right time and in the right place.' Focussing on these key areas allows us to innovate in a way that is always oriented toward our customers' goals."

For example:

Erica and her team created a dynamic toolset that allows users to search for content more effectively and precisely. Instead of simply bringing up relevant articles when a user enters a search, the platform loads chunks of targeted information within those resources. This way, users aren't spending unnecessary time finding the exact content they are looking for or having to use a table of contents.

Infuse Your Products with More Empathy Today

Customers have big dreams and high hopes for the products they use, and empathy in product design is the key to making those dreams a reality. When we focus on the real people behind the screen, we can create amazing experiences that not only meet their expectations but exceed them. 

If you're eager to learn more and have some burning questions, give us a shout! We're always here to help.

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