April 29, 2016 by Ashwin Ramasamy

As your company grows, the distance between the founders and their customers grow — Specialists take over the frontlines of customer smooching. Remember that most of us start companies because we have strong opinions about certain problems & hence the empathy towards the customers who face them.

Scaling empathy is hard. Hard it is, as it is exactly the time when you are marshalling the troops that landed, to go expand aggressively.

Empathy in Product development & a poem to draw from

We anticipated this very early in PipeCandy and decided that we would make ‘empathy’ an ingredient in the briefs that we give our developers. They need to ‘feel’ the customers’ context, the pain, the anxiety and the nervousness. Easier said than done.

I come from haunts of coot and hern,
I make a sudden sally
And sparkle out among the fern,
To bicker down a valley.

writes Alfred Lord Tennyson when describing the journey of the brook as it starts as a spring and joins a brimming river (and metaphorically capturing the journey of life).

Empathy during product development comes only through such elaborate treatment of a customer’s context as though you are going to write a poem about her. You need to accentuate and embellish the mundane to make the developers nod with a lilt in their head when they read your product requirements.

What’s a poem’s equivalent for writing product requirements?

User Stories vs. Job Stories

We tried user stories for a brief while. Here’s one sample.

“As a sales rep, I want to be able to add a new prospect to an existing list, through a form”

Where’s empathy here? The user story is structured in such a way — not that the story has to be written this way but in its diminutive form this is what it would turn out to be — makes for an endearing, easy and quick read but does not serve its purpose.

I am personally very enamoured by the concept of ‘Jobs To Be Done’. First promulgated by Clayton Christensen, JBTD pins the focus on the job for which the customer is hiring our product. The focus is ‘the job’ first and ‘the person’ next.

A sample job story – Written for our B2B email prospecting product

When I’m in a hurry to send email campaigns and as I go about it, I realise that I have not added a prospect I should include in the list

I want to be able to quickly add that prospect to that list (without having to leave the page & go elsewhere to do this)

so that I go about sending my campaign with very minimal slowing down even in cases where I need to make last minute changes to my list.

Now, consider the context. The sales rep in a small business is not doing email campaigns all day. She has other things to take care of. Sending email campaigns is a chore. Ideally it should happen automatically. While we are working on it, every feature we build should make our users become better at sending campaigns (or even better, forget about tending to campaigns).

But for now, how can we make life simpler for her? On one hand, she has to catch up with follow-ups. She needs to do her demos. She needs to send a presentation to a warm prospect. Email Campaigns need 30 minutes of her time (or more) and she needs to squeeze out that time from competing priorities. She needs help.

Will you make her go to one more screen just to add a prospect? Will you make her chew nails as the page loads for eternity? Will you make her break the flow by refreshing the page and confuse her for a few seconds. Will you stress her out?

Or, would you rather allow her to add a prospect from where she is and without having to refresh any page or move anywhere else?

Baking empathy into our product development process

If you ask all these questions to the developer, obviously he will choose the latter. The way you help a developer feel this empathy is by not asking all these questions but embellish and accentuate the context while describing the job of our customer.

The “when” part of the job story gives adequate space for this accentuation and embellishment of context. It acts as a reservoir of empathy, enacting the situation as it unravels in the minds of the customer as she sits down to run a campaign.

A user story, rethought as a job story allows for elaborate context setting. With that comes empathy. Empathy that flows much like the brook and brims like a river as the product reaches the hands of your customer.

Ashwin Ramasamy

Co-founder @ PipeCandy

Slips poor jokes & gets away with a poker face. Carries a no BS attitude at getting things done. First to arrive at the office, Ashwin’s energy does not ebb through the day. Ashwin is one of the co-founders and he sets the tone for marketing, sales, design & culture.