Can there be too much empathy?

It is exciting to be the person on the team who is responsible for bringing the end user to life in a project team. To be the person who is advocating on behalf of the end user, to be fighting in their corner, to be trying to build an empathetic sense of who the end user is within your project team. It’s a fun job and it feels like a valuable contribution. It’s something I spend a lot of my time doing.

It’s important we don’t oversimplify our responsibilities when it comes to empathy.

Empathy goes rogue if you empathise with one party only. If your fervour for empathising with your end user affects your ability to empathise with the needs of the people in your project team, things will go badly. Your ability to be effective for the end user will be diminished or neutralised if that is the only perspective with which you can truly empathise.

That’s not to say that the needs of the developer or the delivery manager should outweigh the needs of the end user – user needs come first*. It is to say that in the way that you involve the rest of the team in experiencing empathy with the end user you are also seeking to understand what is important to the people in your team.

So, no, there probably can’t be too much empathy, just make sure you spread it around.

* this, of course, assumes that you’re working on something that you should be working on – if you’re in government, something that only government can do. If you’re in a business, something that is going to, if successful, help build a sustainable business.

Why words matter (more on the relationship between culture and strategy)


Sketchnotes by @YahnyInLondon of Gill Ereaut’s talk at Design of Understanding 2012

Words are pegs to hang ideas on – Henry Ward Beecher

It is not unusual for me to be involved in a debate about words. Words I am frequently pedantic about include user research, user testing, user experience and user centred design. I think that the words we use matter. They do more than just define what we see and do, they help us understand what we think about those practices.

It’s always interesting to me to see who finds these discussions useful and who doesn’t. I’ve found that people I’m working with who are less familiar with design, research, user experience find the definitions useful. Within our teams we have to correct ourselves often, change what we called things before, get rid of previous habits of language, but that’s a good thing – every time we remember, we remind ourselves of why we use the language we use (because we’re testing ourselves and not our users, for example).

Interesting, the people who get stroppy about the definitions and say that it doesn’t really matter tend to be people who have been involved in the ‘user experience’ community for at least five years. I guess they have a vested interest in not being seen to be wrong. Or, perhaps more generously, they are just so close to the subject that any word will always be an oversimplification of all the beliefs, attitudes and practices of their work.

If you want to know what an organisation really believes in, look at the language they use in their day to day work – in their meetings, in their documents, in what they call things.

There are people, like Gill Ereaut, who do this as their full time job – they do linguistic analysis to help companies try to join up what they ‘officially’ say they are trying to do (their official language) with what people actually say as they go about their day to day work (the surface language).

Language is the medium through which culture is enacted – Gill Ereaut

A mismatch between surface and official language is a signal of ineffectiveness in an organisation. There can also be lots of different surface languages in different parts of the organisation that makes it even more difficult for communication across the functions and increases the impact of silos (for example marketing speaks a totally different language to the tech team).

Organisations who are thoughtful about the words they use repeatedly are more able to have a more consistent culture that allows their strategies to come to life in the products and services they create and the way they interact with their audience (this works even if those words might appear artless, like ‘show the thing’, something people at GDS say all the time and even have a poster for)

Show the thing poster

Changing the words on the hymn sheet won’t create a whole new religion, but, as Gill says,

‘linguistic change at the surface level affects the assumptions held by the organisation’.

Especially when it comes to customers, making sure that the words we use in the organisation are empathetic to the people the organisation is serving and that it reflects the type of experience and interaction that the organisation wants to have with those people sends daily micro signals widely through the organisation that this is something with which it is genuinely concerned.

In her talk at Design of Understanding conference in 2012, Gill (yes, I am a bit of a fan) talked about an organisation where she’d done some linguistic analysis. This was an organisation that believed that they cared about good quality customer service, but analysis of the way the organisation communicated showed that actually, they were afraid of their customers – they were distant from and lacked empathy for their customers, making it almost impossible for them to really deliver great customer experience.

Every day, in the words that organisation used, in the names of their processes and documents, in the way they communicated with each other, they were entrenching this fear of the customer that made it impossible for any corporate level ‘Customer Experience’ strategy to be effective.

Words can remind us many times a day what we all care about and what we believe in.

Changing the words we use can help us to change our culture in tiny moments every day and help us to be more able to implement strategy effectively.

Calling it user research instead of user testing won’t change the way the moderator runs the session or the experience of the research participant. As the person who is running the sessions, it probably makes no difference to your competence what you call it. But deliberately deciding to call it user research even though your reflex is to call it user testing means that every time you choose to use the words we’ve agreed on, you are also agreeing, once again, to the reason we chose those words – because we’re testing ourselves, our work, our design, our services and not our users. Because we are in service to our users and if they don’t understand, that reflects poorly on us and not them.

Being thoughtful about words seems to be one of the simplest and least confrontational yet most powerful ways to transform organisations in tiny moments every day. Teeny, tiny moments of strategy everyone in the organisation can implement every day.

Thus, words being symbols of ideas, we can collect ideas by collecting words. The fellow who said he tried reading the dictionary but couldn’t get the hang of the story simply missed the point: namely, that it is a collection of short stories. – James Webb Young, A Technique for Producing Ideas

This is the sixth post in a series of rambles around the topic of strategy in the general vicinity of user experience which I’m posting as a kind of obituary to the book I almost finished writing then realised was pretty much completely wrong.

I’ve been writing this instead:

  1. Everyone is doing strategy right now
  2. Strategy doesn’t live in a silo (or there is no such thing as UX Strategy)
  3. Strategy fast and slow (or strategy is culture for breakfast, lunch and tea)
  4. Strategy is a team sport
  5. Good strategy is modular

Good strategy is modular

In the early days of writing my book, when I was listening to people tell me what they thought strategy was, I often heard people break it down using this analogy:

Strategy: Take the hill. Tactics: Skinny guys behind trees, fat guys behind rocks.

It’s not a great use of time to debate exactly what is a strategy and what is not, but what makes more sense to me is something more like this:

Goal: Take the hill. Strategy: Skinny guys behind trees, fat guys behind rocks. Tactic: Find the nearest rock/tree that will help me get closer to the hill.

Some people seem to think that strategy needs to be a comprehensive statement of what you’re doing and how. I think it’s better to have a number of smaller strategic approaches that can be joined together – a modular approach to strategy.

If you’re waging a war, playing a football game or trying to do whatever it is your organisation does, the kind of strategy you don’t want is a ‘play by play’, an inflexible, linear strategy that requires the entire world to stay exactly as it is (or exactly as you plan it to be) in order for your strategy to succeed.

Most of us now operate in environments that are crazily complex and uncertain, subject to unpredictable change. Competitors do surprisingly good things, financial sectors have unpredicted crises, a whole new programming language is required (or deprecated) by an company that is critical to accessing your end users, a butterfly flaps its wings….

The kind of strategies you need are ones that the troops can apply even when they get separated from their commander and each other. That allows them to know what they should be doing without relying on being told. It allows them to reliably predict what all the other brave soldiers would do in any given situation. This allows the company to behave in a reasonably unified way.

Having a collection of easily remembered, easily applied strategies work best. Strategies that everyone in the organisation can apply. Strategies that are complementary and integrated. Strategies expressed with carefully chosen words.

Someone commented in on a previous post saying that although GDS says ‘the strategy is delivery’ this is not a strategy because it doesn’t say what is being delivered. This is true in as much as ‘the strategy is delivery’ is not the only strategy in play, but I’d argue that it is still very much a strategy and is used in a strategic way.

Modular strategy works something like this.

Combine ‘start with user needs‘ with ‘making digital services so good that people prefer to use them’, ‘the strategy is delivery‘ and ‘show the thing‘ (four strategies that are widely in use at GDS). This tells the team an awful lot about what they should be focussing on and how they should be working.

Add the rest of the design principles and the digital by default service standard to the mix and you get even clearer guidance.

You can apply this at a project level – what should we be working on and prioritising as a team right now? Answer: quickly making a thing (probably a prototype to being with) that addresses the things that are most important to the end users (or finding out what that is if you don’t know), making it as easy for people to understand and use as possible, getting stuff live, iterating based on research, analytics and feedback.

Apply this at an individual level and  you also get a lot of guidance. As a user researcher, for example, we are constantly focussed on understanding our users and their needs, and working with the team to iterate design improvements and test new features. We take a delivery focussed approach – optimising for providing actionable insights for our team over taking the most robust research method.

When you’re doing something for the first time, when you’re choosing between different approaches, deciding what to do and how to do it, when there is no one around to tell you what you should be doing – you can go a long way to doing the best thing by applying these strategies.

Have a clear goal – know which hill your organisation wants to take, but then have a whole load of strategies that can be combined to help project teams and individuals be empowered to make decisions that are aligned and will all work together to help achieve the goal.

This is the fifth post in a series of rambles around the topic of strategy in the general vicinity of user experience which I’m posting as a kind of obituary to the book I almost finished writing then realised was pretty much completely wrong. This is some of the stuff  I probably should have written instead. You can see the first post herethe second one herethe third one here, and the fourth one here.

Strategy is a team sport

The unit of delivery is the team

There are hundreds and hundreds of people who work where I work, and we have quite a few strategies that we apply in our work on a daily basis but I’m pretty sure that there is no one in the organisation who has the work ‘strategy’ in their job title.

(OK, there may be one, but if you meet him, he’s more than likely to introduce himself as the Director of Powerpoint, which kind of supports the point I’m about to make).

Strategy is not a thing at the top of the hierarchy in our organisation and I think, compared to other places I’ve known and worked, we’re reasonably good at strategy. I think this is probably a big reason why we are reasonably good at strategy. Because we all own it.

Strategy only works if everyone in the team believes in it. If they feel ownership over it, over the ability to act on it, to make it so, every day.

Strategy doesn’t work so well if there are a few people who get to go to all the fancy lunches who ‘own’ the strategy. Strategy doesn’t work if it is a land grab, a desirable job title, a person with all of the power who gets to tell people what the idea is and then get exasperated when the execution doesn’t live up to his what his slide deck said it would be.

Strategy needs servant leadership. The unit of delivery is the team.

If you want to be the most awesome strategy person here is what you need to do:

  • Help your team find the right, succinct set of words to describe what they believe they need to do to succeed.
  • Help them to find the opportunities to say those words over and over again – especially as they use them to help make decisions about what not to do, what to do and how to do it.
  • Get out of the way and let them believe it this was all their doing.

This is the fourth post in a series of rambles around the topic of strategy in the general vicinity of user experience which I’m posting as a kind of obituary to the book I almost finished writing then realised was pretty much completely wrong. This is some of the stuff  I probably should have written instead. You can see the first post herethe second one here, and the third one here.