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Digital Empathy
Listen closely to real people to develop emotional insights.
I recently sat through a series of focus groups in which a broad cross-section of consumers in Atlanta and Los Angeles spoke about their relationships with technology, particularly their mobile devices. The participants ranged in age from early twenties to late sixties, and they came from a wide array of socio-economic backgrounds.

While the various groups were organized by demographics, I noticed a startling theme that wended its way through all groups. This theme manifested itself in varying ways — depending on who was sharing — but the message was quite clear: we have an uneasy relationship with the new marvels of technology that more and more have come to dominate our time and attention.

One woman in particular said something that struck me. We were talking about mobile devices and she said, “I had a touchscreen phone for two days. I loved it but I saw myself going down a dark path, so I returned it and went back to BlackBerry.”

This sentiment was so contrary to everything that we think we know about how consumers think about their phones. All of us in the marketing business are under the impression that all consumers want the new shiny object: the newest iPhone or Razr, the latest tablet or game system or app. But in reality, a great many people out there are nervous. They see their technology future and they don’t like it.

This insight itself is not what ultimately interests me though. I am concerned today with what we can (and should) do — as marketers, researchers, and experience designers — to better understand consumers, especially in this rapidly changing technology landscape where peoples’ habits and attitudes can undergo radical change almost overnight.

We need to develop a sense of digital empathy to truly understand the attitudes, beliefs and, ultimately, the emotions that guide consumers’ choices and behavior in the digital landscape. Today’s field of user-experience focuses its attention on how to create digital experiences that are intuitive and user-friendly. This has largely been accomplished by gaining an understanding of the behaviors of users or consumers, and less on the underlying emotions that drive those behaviors. By gaining digital empathy for the end-user, we can gain a whole new level of insight that will lead to stronger and more relevant ideas.

Empathy is not always easy to achieve, especially when faced with designing to a target segment that may be based solely on business priorities and demographics. It is said that empathy is achieved when you can walk a mile in another man’s (or woman’s) shoes, and I believe that in the case of digital empathy, you must spend a week with his iPhone, on his Facebook Wall and in his Xbox. Until we know how a person thinks and feels about the digital tools he or she is using, we cannot achieve the empathy that is so critical.

Create “Rich Personas”

The best way I have found to get inside a consumer’s head is through the creation and use of “rich personas.” I have been a proponent of rich persona development for most of my career. I have seen firsthand the value that personas can bring to the digital creative process. It is important, though, to understand how the development and use of personas has evolved over the last decade. Alan Cooper developed the practice of personas as a tool to aid in the design of software programs in the 1990s. Toward the end of the decade, as websites became more complex than a few pages hyperlinked together, the use of personas helped designers and information architects understand, and empathize with, the needs and desires of the end-user.

Whitney BrowneAs digital marketing supplanted website development in most digital agencies in the mid-2000s, the use and function of personas changed. No longer were the needs and goals of the end-user as important as the ability for the digital experience to sell, or convey a message, or create “engagement.” And because marketers speak the language of target demographic segments much more easily than behavioral or attitudinal end-user groupings, personas became a way for digital strategists to bring segments to life.

While this didn’t help as much with defining feature sets of interaction design, personas maintained their ability to deliver empathy for the consumer. They allowed marketers and their clients to develop a shared understanding of — and digital empathy for — their target consumers.

So how do we add the kind of richness to personas to get them to that empathy state? I have found that the way to get an archetype turned into a representation of a real person is to add as much detail and richness to their lives and narratives as possible. I have often met resistance from research teams, account teams and client teams when I attempt this kind of input.

There is always resistance when an attempt is made to add details to a persona that aren’t pulled from research sources such as Experian Simmons. The problem I see is that when these are the only sources of say, TV watching habits, we won’t learn anything that sets this particular person apart from all other people in their demographic group.

For instance, knowing that a persona enjoys watching American Idol does not get me to understanding that persona on an emotional level. However, if I know that he sits through Idol because it’s his daughter’s favorite show and sharing the experience brings them closer together, then I am layering emotional cues on a simple media habit and that will help me develop empathy.

But how do I learn the target’s emotional rationale for why he watched American Idol? I won’t find it in quant data and I won’t find it in Simmons. I need to go out in the world and meet people to learn about why they make decisions the way they do. I need to probe the emotional connection they feel to their digital lives in order to uncover rich insights. Personas become rich and three-dimensional when we learn the little details that make people real.

Shared Sense of Ownership

Digital empathy also strengthens the relationship between digital teams and their clients. The act of developing digital empathy through the persona creation process has a magical effect of imbuing project teams with a shared sense of ownership over the personas created. We often talk about how the act of developing a persona is giving birth to a person. As a team, we bring this fictional person into the world to represent the emotions and desires of a certain customer type. The better the research inputs that go into the persona, the richer that persona’s life becomes, and the easier it is to empathize with them.

There are other ways that digital empathy is important in the creative process. When we use emotion as an input into design, we naturally tend to make things that are more evocative and meaningful. In his book Emotional Design, the influential designer Donald Norman writes, “Emotion is a necessary part of life, affecting how you feel, how you behave, and how you think. Indeed, emotion makes you smart … Without emotions, your decision-making ability would be impaired.”

So, because emotion plays such a critical role in how we experience and interact with the world, as we design digital experiences, we must take the emotional component of perception into account. And it is through the development of digital empathy that this connection to the emotional state of the end-user is made real.

Let’s look at an obvious example of a digital product that evokes a strong positive emotional response. Apple is known for creating products that elicit a strong positive emotional reaction in its customers. It is rare for a brand to garner such a fervent following — especially in the technology space.

Apple has succeeded in no small way due to its focus on aesthetics and usability. The physical design of Apple products creates a tactile, emotional response that makes us want to touch and hold and use them — a good thing to be sure, but what keeps us coming back is how these products function.

The user experience of Apple’s operating systems and applications are user-centric and devoid of the glitchy, confusing and ultimately unsatisfying experiences of many technology products. Apple understands the importance of the emotional connections that exists between a consumer and their technology. This understanding is explicit. As Apple’s own developer guidelines state:

“A great user interface follows human interface design principles that are based on the way people —users — think and work, not on the capabilities of the device. A user interface that is unattractive, convoluted, or illogical can make even a great application seem like a chore to use. But a beautiful, intuitive, compelling user interface enhances an application’s functionality and inspires a positive emotional attachment in users.”

What I learned from the experience with the focus group that I detailed earlier is that emotional reaction to technology is a critical component to understanding how consumers behave and how they make decisions about their technology. Digital empathy is best achieved by remembering a few
key points.

Listen closely to real people in order to develop emotional insights. Rich personas are a great way to codify and articulate those emotional insights across a broad design and client team. And lastly, think about how the end-user will react emotionally to what you are designing. These points will ensure you develop a strong sense of digital empathy in your work.


Whitney Browne

WHITNEY BROWNE is group director, head of user experience, at G2 USA, where he crafts insight-driven user experiences using research, strategy, rich persona development, creative direction, and information architecture. Email: wbrowne-@-g2.com.


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