Building user empathy within product teams

4 min read
Kayla J Heffernan
  •  Dec 29, 2015
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Empathy empowers us to be better designers. When we understand the user’s perspective, we make products that are better suited to them.

At SEEK, we have a variety of means to build empathy, with different levels of engagement. Here’s a closer look at some of our methods.

Embrace a research culture

If you work at SEEK and don’t know that user research happens every week, you’ve been hiding under a rock. Mimi Turner, our researcher, advertises and advocates research, along with the UX designers within their product teams. The research calendar is up to date and color-coordinated, emails are sent inviting the core team and those interested in UX to the sessions, and the schedule for the day is posted on the observation room. When she’s not busy doing research, Mimi gives presentations on UX research at SEEK to build our research culture.

“When we understand the user’s perspective, we make better products.”

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Welcome—and encourage—observation

When we test a particular feature, we invite the developers, testers, product owners, product managers, digital analysts, and delivery managers involved in that component to watch the research from the observation room.

These sessions are also open to anyone else interested from anywhere in the company, like sales, marketing, HR, and customer service. Sometimes we’ll lure an observer into a session because they simply walked by and saw a real, live user using our product on the TV screen.

However, with meetings, regular work, and other commitments it can often be hard for folks to attend these sessions. I personally try to work from the observation room for at least 2 sessions if I can, to half-watch while I do other work. When it’s my research, I’ll most likely be in the room taking notes and more actively listening.

“Empathy empowers us to be better designers.”

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Socialize key findings

Each user research session has a 2-page document of key findings circulated afterwards, and a session with the project team to run through the results in more depth. This document is sent to the core team and anyone else who observed the session and wanted to stay in the loop. We store all findings in a central space where anyone at SEEK can access it.

Display user quotes

Hearing something straight from the horse’s mouth builds more empathy than reading it in a formal findings report. We capture verbatim quotes from research participants that sum up their feelings or thoughts. We send them, along with a picture of the participant, with the findings. These are also posted up around the office. We include a picture to put a face to the quote and build greater empathy and understanding.

“Include a picture with a user’s quote to build greater empathy and understanding.”

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Showcase highlight reels

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video highlights reel is worth a million. We record every user research session.

We never post these videos anywhere public, and we almost never go back and watch the full sessions. No one has time to sit down and watch 5–10 user research sessions with a running time of at least 45 minutes each. If you’re too busy to observe a session, then you can surely spare 2-4 minutes to watch a highlights reel that articulates the key points.

“Too busy to watch a user research session? Watch a highlights reel.”

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The UX team uses the recordings to make a “highlights reel” of a particular interaction’s pain points to show to the development team. It can be hard to understand why you’re changing something that you built and you know how to use. Shouldn’t the user know how to do this? Do we need documentation? (No, never documentation. Better design is always the answer to this question!)

When I started making the highlight reels and showing them to the team, they gained a much better understanding of our users. Watching these videos is a powerful way to build real empathy. When you watch a video, you see the real person, hear their voice, and see them struggle. This is much more effective at building empathy for the users and getting things fixed rather than just explaining the problem.

When the developers see real people with real problems struggling to use something they created, they want to rush back to their desks and fix the problem—real fast.

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