The balance of customer insight and design conviction.

Empathy. Data-driven decision-making. Follow-me-home customer observation. Experience. Gut. Principles. MVP vs. RAT. Agile! Ship to learn!

Designers are beset on all sides by methods. Processes. “Have you thought about…” and “What gives us confidence…”? We are asked to do more, faster, with less. And often, we lament a lack of empathy for the design process itself. We may feel driven in a million directions — many times by well-meaning customers or teammates or leaders hoping to help.

It’s difficult to watch someone struggle. In fact — so much so that most well-meaning folks offer up solutions without truly understanding the problem. Assumptions are the death of design. Not only do they cloud our ability to solve customer problems, assumptions also impede our ability to help unstick teams.

Why do people keep talking about empathy?

The best inspiration is watching someone struggle. Better yet, feeling that feeling yourself. How many times have you done something for the millionth time and thought to yourself — why hasn’t somebody come up with a better way to do this? Remembering passwords. Unscrewing that little screw in a doorknob. Plugging in your charger cord beneath your airplane seat. That stuff sucks. And those moments are the stuff that inspiration is made of. Sitting at your desk, staring at a Sketch file, trying to imagine how the UI is going to make someone’s life better — that’s insane. Do some quick drawings and go use them, not to prove you’re right but, to get people to point you to the REAL problems in their lives. Sit in their chair. Do the things they do. Make the struggle real. The stories, the pictures and the physical sensations will stick with you long after the experience is over.

I just spent 10 minutes trying to figure out how to plug my laptop charger into the port under my airline seat. I tried feeling my way to it. I tried using my camera’s phone as a mirror. I eventually climbed completely out of my seat, knelt in the aisle and stuck my head under the seat (much to my seat-mates curiosity and anxiety). There is NO WAY to do it otherwise. NO WAY. The image of me kneeling, frustrated, in the aisle as cabin mates look on will stick in my head for awhile. I can’t imagine the person who designed this airplane seat tried to do this task themselves— or observed another trying to successfully use the plug. And certainly not with this little space between seats. It would have taken observing approximately two customers to see what a horrible design decision that was.

So yeah — empathy is a great, perhaps the greatest source of inspiration and quick decision making in pursuit of solving the customer problem.

What’s unique about a designer?

Taste. Inspiration. Magic. Creativity. Delight. Designers connect dots. Designers take solutions from functional to inspirational. From viable to beautiful. From passable to desirable. Is design what it looks like? Yes, of course. AND how it feels. And sounds. And timing and relevance and personality. And endearing quirks.

Good design requires craft. Craft requires experience. Mastery of tools and processes. And curiosity about not just the problem to be solved, but the impact of the context (the moment, the location, the mindset and the larger trends and expectations in which an experience is consumed.)

A designer, a good one, is like a Ferrari. Both technically precise and emotionally provocative. Delivering those two things, perfectly, creates blow-your-hair-back, fawn-over-the-detail goosebumps. And people pay hundreds of thousands for that kind of value. For both the design and the designer.

Use your designer like a tractor, and you are wasting your money, their talent and your customer’s attention. You’ll run out of money long before you deliver the value your customers want and deserve. You’ll burn out your designer in the process.


Once you are sure you’re solving the right problem, quantitative data is your friend. Analytics give you an amazing sense of how your funnel is performing, where your customers are getting hung up and help you otherwise fine-tune your experience with rapid micro-tests with the explicit purpose of optimizing. If your experience doesn’t solve the right problem, your quant will do very little to help you find out why. And all the funnel-tinkering in the world is not going to suddenly unleash a torrent of customer benefit. Plus, if 5 out of 5 people are indifferent to your experience, or hate it outright — save yourself the wide-spread study. Why test with 1000 people what you can learn with 5? Thank you, Tom Chi.

What’s good enough?

Are you absolutely clear on the problem and that you’re focused there? Are you proud of it? Do customers hug you after they use it? Do other designers look at it and say “Wow”? Do you feel uncompelled to apologize for, or caveat the experience?

Don’t mistake “constructively dissatisfied” with unsatisfactory. Your standards may be higher. You may demand perfection. You may want to polish the under side of the table. You may want to noodle on the animations, the typography, the color scheme or illustrations. You may never really be “done” — but if you get high-fives from your team, your boss, AND your customer — you’re probably close.

What next?

Focus. Make time to focus. Don’t start to solve before you feel the problem and observe it first hand. DO a FOG exercise where you unpack the FACTS, your OPINIONS and GUESSES. Use facts to decide. Narrow your opinions and guesses to the most important ones and go prove yourself right or wrong. For the ones that aren’t important? Pick one and go. Don’t test design decisions that are best left up to the expertise and gut of the designer with training and experience. DO ask them to unpack their logic if its important and you’re not sure — it’s good for designers to defend their decisions — it’s also exhausting to have to defend EVERY decision.

Surround yourself with artifacts that remind you of the pain and the customer you’re solving for. Immerse yourself here. “Fall in love with the problem.” Be a problem expert first, a product expert second. Continue to track the problem, not the solution.

Keep your eyes open for the problem that you may inadvertantly find that’s even MORE important. Savor that surprise. The unintended benefit. Or the weird “misuse” of your solution. That’s usually the problem they are trying to solve with your solution, even when they “aren’t doing it right”. Recognize that you could be disrupted by someone else who solves or eliminates your problem upstream. Thank you, Scott Cook.

Start making “things” immediately to help you better understand the problem and provoke both your customers and your stakeholders. Make your first real thing in the first week. Make it real — in the lowest fidelity you can get away with to tell the story, evoke a response and learn something new. Beware the computer. It’s distracting. And it’s a slippery slope to higher fidelity than you need. Interviews, email, meetings, google searches and third-party research are no match for prototypes and fieldwork. Focus on behaviors over answers and opinions.

If you forgo a deliverable or a meeting in order to better understand and illustrate the problem, you are actually doing your job. You will catch up on the deliverable. But if you are not clear on the problem your trying to solve, all the code in the world delivered at the fastest pace ever will not save you. Beware the full calendar and the feeling of “I’m too busy to go do that right now.” Be honest with yourself. Make the time to do the real work. Explain why and hold yourself and your team accountable to the REAL work of understanding the customer problem.

Your team’s velocity metric should be measured by customer benefit delivered/hour. Zero divided by anything is zero.

If you are the designer, be the design expert. No one else has your training, your experience, your taste, your gut. Be patient and explain to your teammates how design works and how designers work. Explain when qualitative research trumps quant. Show them good design and why it matters. Have empathy for them. Teach them. Inspire them. Turn them into advocates of the customer problem, the process, and you. In short, lead with design.

If you are not the designer, develop empathy for their role and give them room to shine.

Written by

Design Leader, Advisor, Speaker, Student, Advocate, Enabler.

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