Poornima Vijayashanker

How to Use Empathy to Build Software Products


There’s one skill that every wildly successful product manager, UX designer, businessperson, and leader has in common. It helps them unite teams and ship products that customers love time and time again.

What could possibly unite all these technologists?

It’s conscious and deliberate empathy.

Most people believe empathy is just about being compassionate, like lending your friend a shoulder to cry on when they’re going through a breakup. Others dismiss it altogether as a distraction, because they believe it’s more important to be efficient, focus, and get stuff done!

Well, it just so happens that when a company is plagued by lack of motivation, missed deadlines, and high employee turnover, often it’s because employees feel that their teammates, bosses, and management don’t “get them.” They might feel like coworkers jump to conclusions or assume their intentions and motivations. In other words, they don’t feel that anyone has empathy for them as an individual.

Lack of empathy is terrible for team building, but it also impacts another crucial part of your business…

It actually seeps into how products are created, so customers feel like your company doesn’t “get” them either! Why would a customer who feels misunderstood stay loyal to you or recommend you to your friends?

Empathy isn’t just about being compassionate. There are actually several different types of empathy. And there’s one that’s most helpful for success in business and technology.

We’ll tell you how to start using it right away in today’s episode of FemgineerTV. For expert guidance, I’ve invited Indi Young, a founder of Adaptive Path, user experience consultant, and author of two books: Mental Models and, most recently, Practical Empathy.

Indi will help us clarify several misconceptions and avoid some misuses of empathy. . .and of course to learn how to actually practice it in the right way.

Here’s what you’ll learn as you watch the episode:

  • why Tom Gruber, the designer and cofounder of Siri, believes empathy is crucial to getting things done in tech companies;
  • why empathy isn’t limited to just building products but extends to processes and building teams;
  • why we’ve fallen in love with quantitative data, but it isn’t enough to develop a deep understanding of our teammates and customers—we need qualitative data, too;
  • why empathy is a skill that can be learned and practiced; and
  • how to translate our learnings from practicing empathy into actionable insights for our business.

If you’re struggling to understand your customers and find alignment with your teammates, then you’ll want to watch this episode!

Viewer’s Challenge

After you’ve watched the episode, take our challenge. Let us know in the blog comments below: What do you currently do to understand your customers and teammates?

The three best responses will receive a special giveaway from our sponsor, Pivotal Tracker, and will be showcased in Femgineer’s weekly newsletter!

Submit your responses in the blog comments below by May 20th at 11:59pm PST.

Join our Twitter chat

Poornima Vijayashanker and Indi Young will be hosting a Twitter chat on Wednesday, May 20th at 7:15pm PST. Join the conversation using the hashtag #femgineertv.

The next episode of FemgineerTV airs in June!

I’ll be hosting Edmond Lau, the author of The Effective Engineer. Subscribe to our YouTube channel to know when it’s out!

How to Use Empathy to Build Software Products Transcript

Poornima Vijayashanker: Welcome to the fourth episode of FemgineerTV, brought to you by Pivotal Tracker. I’m your host, Poornima Vijayashanker, the founder of Femgineer. Femgineer is an education company where we teach innovators how to build software products, so they can find freedom in their careers, enrich other people’s lives, and make the tech world a lot more flexible and inclusive. Today on FemgineerTV, we’re going to be talking about the one skill that all successful product managers, user experience designers, business people, and team leaders have. What’s this one skill? It’s empathy.

All these people are successful at building products that customers love and recommend to other people, as well as uniting their teams to build these products because they practice empathy. Believe it or not, it’s a skill that can be taught. In our pilot episode of FemgineerTV, you’ll remember that I had special guest, Ben Congleton, the CEO and Founder of Olark. Ben and I were talking about what it’s like to run a remote team, and we talked about a number of misconceptions that people have when it comes to running a remote team, such as being devoid of culture, and people just not caring about each other or their customers.

To dispel these myths, Ben shared two values that Olark practices to have an open culture and meet the needs of its customers. The first was assume good faith, and the second was, practice empathy. Now, after watching the episode you might have thought, “Well, that’s just great for Ben and his compassionate company, but that’s never going to fly with my company.” Or you might have thought, “Why does this even matter? We need to get stuff done.” Well it just so happens that what often causes a lack of motivation, missed deadlines, and high employee turnover, are employees thinking that their management, their bosses, and their teammates just don’t get them. They might feel like their coworkers jump to conclusions or assume their intentions rather than trying to understand where they’re coming from. In other words, they feel like nobody has any empathy for them.

A lack of empathy is terrible for team building, but it doesn’t just stop there. It can often seep into the products that we build. Customers end up feeling like we just don’t get them and as a result, they are no longer loyal and don’t recommend our products and services to their friends. How do we prevent this? We learn to practice empathy. Today, I’ve invited our special guest, Indi Young, to help us clarify some misconceptions and common misuses of empathy, and to talk about the right way to practice empathy.

Indi was a founder of Adaptive Path, is a user experience consultant, and an author of two books: Mental Models, and most recently, Practical Empathy. I’ve gotten familiar with your work because you had actually done some consulting for my first startup, Mint.com, and I knew you were working with some of my coworkers to help us build our information architecture. Quickly after that, I also picked up a copy of your book, Mental Models, for my second startup, BusyBee, and it was just so helpful when it came to building products. It’s helped me build two products, so thank you for your work. Before we dig into more of your work, I wanted to start by asking you, what got you into writing?

Indi Young: The writing question is a little bit of a hard one because I’ve never really thought about not writing, I suppose. I had been doing this kind of work for 10 years, more than 10 years, and I needed to get the word out essentially. There’s only one of me and I need to sort of replicate that knowledge and get it out into the world and show other people that it can be done. Essentially that was the reason. There’s not really ever been a time where I wasn’t anticipating writing something.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Nice. It’s helped you scale your efforts and all of your expertise?

Indi Young: The first book fell out of me really easily because it was a process that you follow. The second book was much harder because it’s not a process, it’s a mindset, and there was a lot more exploration that I needed to do to help people understand how to form this in their minds.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Let’s actually start there. Let’s talk about your first book, Mental Models. What’s the gist of Mental Models?

Indi Young: It’s really all about solutions; some products or services that you might be working on, and being able to understand not how to make it but where it’s going. Where it’s been, how well it’s supporting people, and then understanding new directions, maybe generating new directions out of it. It’s really all about understanding how people are thinking before they even reach for your product, and seeing how well you map to that.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Mm-hmm. Got it. You have a new book out, Practical Empathy; could you share who is the book for and what are some of the benefits of it?

Indi Young: The book’s really for anyone who is passionate about helping other people, who wants to make things happen and fix stuff, make stuff better. That description has no roles associated with it, no titles. I purposely do it that way because it’s not role based, it’s really a mindset that you have when you’re trying to do things. You are a perfect exemplar of this, right?

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yes.

Indi Young: There’s a lot of energy out there, there’s a lot of people trying to do this. It could be that that person is a product manager, could be that person is an engineer, could be that that person is an entrepreneur, so there’s all sorts of different slices that it could go across.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Got it. Let’s dig into the concept of empathy then. I remember in a recent talk that you gave, you had mentioned five to six types of empathy. Do you mind sharing these various types just so that we have an understanding of what’s out there?

Indi Young: Yeah. This is one of the biggest—you were talking about misconceptions that you run across—is the one thing that everybody bases their framework of an empathy on is to walk in somebody’s shoes, and that’s valid. That is in a way to sort of understand what it is to be that person or to feel like that person, but when you go out and look at the literature, this has been studied a lot in psychology, there’s a couple of different names that they give to different types of empathy when they’re describing it.

One is mirrored empathy, which is mirror neurons in your brain. This is not…there are sides to this in contention, but the idea is that when you’re walking down the street and somebody looks at you and smiles at you, this just happened to me on my way here, you smile back and you start to feel uplifted a little bit. This is sort of that facial expression telegraphing across. There’s another kind of empathy that’s called personal distress. This is where maybe you see something that happens to another person, like they trip and fall and you’re like, “Aah! That’s got to hurt,” and you feel it, you have that frisson.

That’s not what we’re talking about in the workplace certainly, but a lot of people in the workplace, like, “Empathy, it’s feeling the other person’s emotion.” That’s emotional empathy. Great word. It’s also called affective empathy in the literature, but the idea is that someone else’s emotion, like say somebody called you up and said, “I got that job I was after.” You’re like, “Awesome,” right?

Poornima Vijayashanker: You feel uplifted.

Indi Young: Yeah, you caught that emotion from them, that feeling from them; it could be a positive or a negative feeling. That kind of thing is, I call it like a lightning strike, it’s tremendously powerful when it happens, but it’s not something you can force to happen. It’s not something you can go out and make happen in the workplace or in the way that you collaborate with people, so it’s not very reliable. You can’t really harness it.

There is luckily another kind of empathy called cognitive empathy, and that’s something you can cause to happen. Cognitive empathy is not feeling anything about…in response, having your own reaction to this other person. It’s simply understanding how that person is thinking, understanding how that person is feeling or reacting to things. Realizing and digging down into how they’re thinking to see what motivates them and what those guiding principles are, and what those roots are. That’s what cognitive empathy is about.

There’s a couple of others that I could describe but essentially the bigger thing that I see running in the workplace besides emotional empathy is sympathy, is that second step that you take after you maybe have had emotional empathy or cognitive empathy with somebody. It’s like, “I’m going to now do something,” and sympathy is usually offering kind words to someone. Dr. Brené Brown, she’s a psychology researcher, she—

Poornima Vijayashanker: Mm-hmm, great TED talks.

Indi Young: Yes. Yeah. Her subject is vulnerability, it’s just not necessarily something that we explore in the workplace although it definitely could be explored in the workplace, but it’s not something necessarily people want to touch. One of the talk she’s done got animated. Someone came along, took the audio and made an animation, and that’s where she describes the difference between sympathy and empathy. If you google Brené Brown animation you’ll find this, and there’s an example of one character offering sympathy whereas another character sitting there with the person and just saying, “I understand you’re feeling this.” That’s emotional empathy.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Got it.

Indi Young: Yeah. There’s a broad range of different things we’re talking about. The book that I wrote, because I want it to be useful and harnessable, I want it to be reliable and repeatable, I focused on cognitive empathy which is really what I’ve been doing throughout my entire career, is understanding what people are thinking and what the reasons are for that thinking.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Great, and in today’s episode, we’re going to focus our conversation around cognitive empathy, and I think that’ll be helpful for our viewers as well. There’s probably still the question in their mind of like, why is this even important? Why is empathy important? Again, we have deadlines, we got to get stuff done, can you speak to that?

Indi Young: The place where I’d like to start with the answer for that is the creative process. You all know that the creative process has been well studied. Ideas pop out of your head and they don’t pop out of your head when you really want them to necessarily. Whenever I give presentations or workshops I’ll go around the room, “Where are your ideas popping out?” It’s actually very positive, people are like, “I know where my ideas pop out: in the shower, or when I’m running, or—”

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yoga for me.

Indi Young: Yeah. One woman’s like, “When I’m sleeping,” and I’m like, “Really? When you’re sleeping?” She’s like, “Well, you know, you have to keep a journal by your bed and when you wake up and you’ve got the idea you write it down.” It’s really interesting that people are aware of where they’re getting these ideas, which is fantastic especially for people who are teaming up together to build something new.

We understand the creative process, where’s empathy come in? The creative process comes from deep inside your brain, you have to let that brain process happen. It’s kind of like you’ve got a bunch of knowledge, you put it into your brain and you let it simmer, out pop ideas from time to time. Then you iterate on those ideas and sometimes there’s a frisson with someone else and you’re like, “Oh, this and this and this,” and you play with those. Then you go home and you’re like, “Oh, but not that, but this,” you know? All of that is based on what’s inside your brain and if the only things you put inside your brain are your own experiences, then the only ideas that are going to pop out of your brain are based on your own experiences.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Got it, mm-hmm.

Indi Young: Yeah, so the whole idea about trying to find out how other people are thinking, in support of the creative aspect, is to put other people’s ideas into your head, stuff it in there, just stuff it full so it’s like a big soup. You know that you get better flavors, better ideas when you have broader ideas and broader perspectives inside your head. It’s not necessarily going to influence it directly, it could, but it’s that whole sort of the way the flavors come together that make that idea, that make that creative process much stronger, better foundation. There’s another thing that I address in the book too, which is collaboration.

Poornima Vijayashanker: There are a lot of ways in which people can misuse cognitive empathy, and one of the ways that you mentioned is that people can use it as a persuasion tactic, in a way in which you’re trying to compel someone to do something or for what we all do, we try to compel someone to buy something. You’ve described why this is not a good way to think about cognitive empathy, not to use it as a persuasion tactic. Why is that? Why should we not use it as a persuasion tactic?

Indi Young: Specifically when you’re…persuasion is one word, behavior change is another word, but change someone’s mind is maybe a good way of thinking about it. It doesn’t necessarily have to be buying, it could be changing the way somebody votes. I actually heard a lot of stories about this when I was researching the book, is, “You know I did all this empathy, I understood what the other side’s up against, and then when I would talk to them I could use that empathy to make them change their mind.” This is actually very strong in literature, too. The other thing that’s strong in literature is the education of having kids learn that another perspective is valid and to not knock it down.

The persuasive part, I have a really good example of that. I just got invited to speak at an O’Reilly conference, Velocity, and as a part of that you get signed up for their, whatever their system is, and you end up on all these mailing lists. You’re on 52 different newsletters and you’re like, “I’m too busy and a little overwhelmed I can’t deal, let me go in and unsubscribe.” I just went in, I got to the page, there’s all these checkboxes that are all blank, I’m like, “Great,” clicked the button, unsubscribe. I still get 52 newsletters and I’m like, “What?” I go back and I’m like, they’re all blank, and then I notice up in the corner there’s this little legend where it says, “Well, if there’s a checkmark in it that means you want it, if there’s an X that’s red in it, you don’t want it, but if it’s blank then you haven’t said so we’re going to send it.”

Poornima Vijayashanker: Oh, no. Yeah.

Indi Young: This is another…it’s super, super subtle that the designer of that unsubscribe page was trying to manipulate you into…right, getting your attention. There’s a word for it, it’s called dark patterns. The definition of that is anytime that you’re trying to…well, the end result is on the person’s side, is that that person feels as if they have been made to do or spend their time doing something that’s not on target for them. Maybe they don’t have time for it, they have very little attention, it’s just not on target, doesn’t feel right. Maybe it does feel right, maybe they’ve been persuaded to watch a bunch of cat videos, which is a lot of fun, but it’s not getting your deadline. It’s still a dark pattern.

Now there are some patterns of behavior change that are acceptable in the literature, which are in cases where someone…it’s a thing where you…how do I want to say this? OK. There are some dark patterns that are acceptable in literature and that’s when you want to help someone stop doing something that’s detrimental. In healthcare, could be stop smoking. It could be in society, stop violent crime, that kind of thing.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Those are all where they have a choice and they want to change their behavior, is that the crux of it?

Indi Young: Not necessarily.

Poornima Vijayashanker: No?

Indi Young: No, not necessarily. It’s still a manipulation but it’s a manipulation away from detrimental behavior.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Got it.

Indi Young: In some cases yes, they want to, in other cases I don’t…I’m not an expert in that sort of thing, I just referenced it. Dark patterns, that’s what that is.

Poornima Vijayashanker: The second dark pattern that I know you talk about is, and I think many of us are guilty of this is, when we’ve got a solution in our head and we just want to verify it. We have an interview or we go and ask the customer a series of questions and once they say “yes,” great. We get that solution and we move right on, but it doesn’t actually get to their needs, right? Can you speak to that a little bit?

Indi Young: Yeah. Well, that’s not a dark pattern.

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK, yeah.

Indi Young: That’s simply us being used to doing solution-based or evaluative work. Very, very much of our energy is spent on the idea, the thing we’re trying to build out, the thing that we’re trying to improve. We think about it in the shower, we cogitate, we scratch our heads and all of that, all that energy is focused on the idea. When you then get the chance to listen to someone and find out about their thinking and what their purpose is and where their intentions are headed, you fail to dig into it because you’re so married to the ideas. You’re just like, you’re in—

Poornima Vijayashanker: It’s your idea, you’re excited, you don’t want to…yeah.

Indi Young: Yeah, and it’s been your life, that’s all taken up in your head space. The nice thing about practical empathy, the nice thing about developing a practice of an empathetic mindset, is that you can turn that off and switch it over, sort of like take off your employee hat, so, “OK, I’m not thinking about the product right now, I just want to think about you.” You are a human being here with me spending some of your attention cycles with me, spending this time with me, this is valuable. Now, sure, I could get your preferences and your reactions to this and I could evaluate how well it’s working for you, that has its place and I’m not saying don’t do that. That is necessary, but it needs to be augmented by just looking at the person and saying, “Hey, Poornima, when you are focused on trying to get to work, what goes through your head and why did you make that decision? On Monday when you did that, what went through your head and why did you make that decision?”

“That’s based on some history from 12 years ago.”

“Tell me about that. What happened then and how did you react?”

I’m getting past those opinions, I’m getting past those preferences, I’m getting past those reactions to an actual idea, and I’m cycling just around the person. I call this person-focused research. I’m going to talk to you, I’m going to talk to Matt, Steve, and Joan, and all these little people, and see if there’s a pattern that comes up in terms of the way that people think their way through that particular thing, which is getting to work. You wouldn’t want to talk to somebody who doesn’t get to work necessarily because they wouldn’t have the stories to tell.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Finally we know that empathy is used to build products, but there’s a lot of other contexts that we can use empathy in. Can you speak about some of the other contexts that you’ve mentioned in your book?

Indi Young: There’s the side of it that’s all about the product, but I like to call it creating, or making, or building. There’s also the side about collaborating, working with other people, the people that are in your business, or your organization if it’s not a business. I’m going to talk a little bit about the creation side of things. There might be a product or a service, but very often people forget that when they are designing a process, or a policy, written content, the way you use a printer which was apparently very difficult to, that has an effect on people. It is an experience that people are having and you owe it to yourself to go out and stuff your brain with knowledge about how those people are reasoning their way toward a purpose. If you stuff your brain with your knowledge, you’re going to come out with better ideas that you can build and create, whether they’re new ideas, tweaks on something that exists, or just polishing up something.

On the collaborative side of things, there’s a few layers as well. There’s always this sort of the peer that you’ve been working with, maybe closely maybe not closely, but you’ve all been in a conference room at some point where that pier was not happy with a decision. The tension rises and you’re all waiting for the conference room to, the meeting or whatever to be over, you get up and you’re like, “I’m getting the hell out of Dodge.” This is an opportunity that a lot of people don’t recognize as a place where you can say, “OK. I’m shutting down my notebook or whatever, and I want to look at this person in the eyes and say, “You know what? I really need to understand you better. I need to understand your reasoning better. I’m clearly not getting it.” Just that ability to put yourself down before them and say, “I don’t understand you and I want to understand you,” gives them the opening. Now that opening, they could use that opening to help you or they could use that opening to hurt you, but you have to be vulnerable to that.

It is the beginning, may be a very small step, of being able to work with that person better because if you get the reasoning behind it, you’re going to then influence those ideas coming out of your head. You’re going to skew them a little bit differently. The same thing happens with your boss, a lot of people…I tag things that people say all the time and some of the things are reactions, and one of the big reactions that happens a lot is fear. We never want to admit it. A lot of people live in fear of their boss. Their boss tells them to do something, they’re like, “Oh my God. What an awful idea but I got to do it,” and it’s, “Well why do you got to do it?”

“Because he’ll tell me that I’m not doing it right or he’ll be mad at me for such and such.”

Poornima Vijayashanker: Well, it’s the power, right? There’s a concentration of various forms of power.

Indi Young: Exactly, and so there’s that fear and we don’t want to admit it but if we do recognize like a tiny, tiny part of it, when that boss asks us to do something and we ask him back, “OK, I’m going to do the best job I can do on this, can you tell me you’re thinking it led up to this?” If your boss can’t answer, get your boss to take you to his boss so that you get that thinking behind it. Just having that discussion starts the process of collaboration. Pushing back on a request is not rebellion—it is the first tiny step in collaboration.

Then there’s another layer in this, too, in terms of collaboration, which is when you have direct reports. In an organization where you’re creating things, building things, engineering things, you are responsible to a great extent for the growth of those people who report you. The growth, whether in skills or creativity or maturity, or whatever, how you keep track of it. I don’t know that many people do keep track of it and so this is yet another way of doing it, sitting down with that person and saying, “OK. What is of concern to you right now?” Then doing that again and again, maybe a quarterly basis, and looking over the year or two years, or three, or five, or whatever, and see…you can start to see those growth patterns, see those things changing. If you see a pattern that’s still sticking up a year later, you’re like, “How? OK. What we’re doing about this is not working. Let’s play a different game here and try to change it up so that that gets solved.” There’re layers upon layers.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Great. To your point, I think there’s a great quote that summarizes this from your book, the foreword that was written by Tom Gruber, the founder of Siri. Tom talks about the importance of practicing empathy in a tech company and the reason of course again, is because you have limited time, you have resource constraints, and you want to make sure everyone’s collaborating together. I want to take a moment just to share that quote with our viewers. Tom writes, “Companies respond by hiring all-star teams of diverse players, working cross-functionally with other teams. Somehow, these herds of high-tech cats need to purr together, like the cylinders in a Jaguar sedan. It doesn’t happen with top-down, military-style command and control. It happens with collaboration, persuasion, negotiation, constructive compromise, and distributed decision making. This requires empathy for the other person in all of these conversations.”

We’ve talked a fair amount now about empathy in terms of collaborating together and working on products. Another area that your book covers is this difference between quantitative as well as qualitative. A lot of times the quantitative analysis, like the metrics and the data, just doesn’t paint a complete picture for what we’re looking for, and we’ve got to get at some of that qualitative data but it can be hard to justify it.

Indi Young: Yeah, it can be hard to justify it, and everybody always asks me, “How do you justify it?”

Poornima Vijayashanker: Great. Yeah.

Indi Young: Unfortunately, my clients are self-selecting so I don’t have to justify it very much, but I do try to help people justify it and I’ve written a couple of articles about it. The basis of it is that our culture is in love with science. When we use the word “science,” we’re actually using it to persuade someone to believe me or to trust me. Next time you see the word science or hear the word science, for the next week you’re going to be noticing this, you’re like, “Oh yeah.” No, they’re not talking about natural science where they’re doing some experiments about something in the lab. They’re not talking about artificial science where they’re studying something that humans have built, the government or something. They’re talking about how great their product is, and how trustworthy they are.

This is a fun thing to start noticing in the world. We’re very, very in love with it. We teach our kids to speak this way, and that I think is the biggest hook that people have for getting some qualitative, some words in there. Words are not the opposite, qualitative is not the opposite of quantitative, they’re both continuums on their own, and they both measure things in general all the way to very specific. Quantitative of course shows up as numbers and feels more believable. Qualitative shows up as words and people are like, “You know those are open to interpretation.” The key to do is to show people that the words are not necessarily open to interpretation within the boundaries that you have defined.

As you go and listen to people and you hear their stories and start seeing patterns, the meaning, the implications of what they’re talking about are the same. They start coming out. As soon as you start seeing that happening over and over again, you know that your qualitative data is valid, that it is starting to show patterns. This is also something that Dr. Brené Brown talks about. It’s the degree to which things repeat, that you start noticing.

Poornima Vijayashanker: I have a great example of this. When I started to work on BusyBee, we had launched the product and I looked at the data and I saw this strange pattern where people would sign up and then disappear. A couple of weeks later, they’d sign in again and then disappear, and there was no way to create a story around this data. I couldn’t concoct anything. I basically was like, “I don’t know what’s going on here and it’s not just one, it’s not just two people, there’s multiple people that are doing this.” I decided that the only thing I could do is get on the phone and I called up a bunch of our users at that point, they’re studio owners. When I called them up, they pretty much all said the same thing. What they told me was, “Yeah, we haven’t opened our business yet and I decided to try your product out, and then I got busy getting ready for the studio opening, and my business partner asked to try out the product. I gave them the log in and they logged in,” and then this sort of little cycle continued.

I just heard this over and over again. Now, had I not picked up the phone, I would not have been able to know this. Had I just looked at the numbers and the data and the science, I wouldn’t have been able to get it. That pattern started to emerge because of that qualitative analysis and then I got a sense of, “OK. This is the behavior. This is how we need to think about designing our product.”

Indi Young: I love the fact that you used the word “concoct,” and that you noticed that you were about to concoct something. A lot of people don’t notice when they’re about to make something up. They just go ahead and make it up. They’ve got deadlines, “OK. We’re off and running. This is what I’ve heard from one person or this is how I think of it, so there we go.” Concoct is a great word for it. I’m really proud of you for reaching out and actually listening to people. The thing that we’re doing here is that we’re falling in…again, sort of into that sciency aura, our worship thing of the word science and the concept of it, and the idea of deductive versus inductive.

The idea of deductive reasoning is that, “You know, I’ve got this general law and because I know this in general, it’s true and specific.” Inductive is actually what we’re doing with this, is that we’re finding a bunch of specifics and we’re letting those specifics tell us the pattern, just like what you did with BusyBee.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Indi Young: Then you get that pattern back and you can act on that pattern. If for some reason we’re just…we think it’s much easier to do the deductive, to say, “I know what the pattern is and let’s just apply it here, and let’s make that assumption. Let’s make up that answer.” It’s very seductive to do this. The media is full of it. I’ve seen studies even by Berkeley researchers published where they’re all like, “It’s all about the 1% being super greedy, and therefore they’re not empathetic at all, and so I’m going to prove this by various semi-inductive, deductive not…” They never talk to anybody. They’re just watching them. They don’t know what’s going through people’s minds.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Got it.

Indi Young: Yeah. Survey is also a culprit. A lot of people will turn to a survey because you can do it within a deadline, you get numbers of responses that seem valid, you can do some math on them, and then you can say, “This was scientifically done, so believe me, trust me,” but a survey doesn’t ask somebody what they’re thinking. A survey simply puts what you’re thinking out there and ask people to pick the thing that’s closest. I don’t like surveys very much at all. The only good survey is an essay question, and I’ve actually done research with essay questions, and it works. It’s not hard so you can still do that deadline thing, play it to the deadline, but just ask people an essay question. Get a lot of data back.

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK. Obviously we don’t want to do surveys, we want to try these essays. I know you have another technique that you share when it comes to practicing empathy, which is the listening sessions, and I think this is interesting because a lot of us who are building products have been taught to do customer interviews and to get from customers or prospective customers what they think, what they want, and then we could build our products. Oftentimes it feels like an interrogation to the customers, so instead in your book you mentioned this concept of listening sessions. Let’s start there. What exactly is a listening session and how can we practice one of these?

Indi Young: One of the most important things about stuffing your head full of knowledge is letting that knowledge come in, rather than bracketing it or boxing it according to what you know already. When you’re doing an interview or a survey, or whatever of these things, you’re like, “OK. You now are going to tell me about the answer to this thing that I know and it’s a box, it’s a framework that I already have in my head, and I’m forcing you into it.” It’s giving me a tiny bit new knowledge but not a lot. It’s not giving me the whole Poornima picture, you could think very differently than I.

What I like to do is use the analogy…there’s two things. One is the analogy of the tour guide, and the other is the idea that you are not smarter than the other person. You really need to let go of that tendency we all have, especially as engineers, to be able to think of an answer, to be able to solve the problem, to be able to fix it. A good engineer will always do, is to explore all of the components involved in something that they’re trying to build. One of those components is the humans and so you want to get into it with that same open mind that you use when you’re looking at other aspects of what you’re trying to solve. Go into it with the whole, “I am not a researcher. I am not smarter than you. I don’t know this area better than you because this area is your mind. I know nothing about your mind,” unless we have spent many dinners together talking about your mind.

“I’m going to choose this opportunity to just let myself go and follow you. I’ll give you the general gist of it.” Like our example a little bit earlier about getting to work, and you’re going to wander wherever you want with that, whatever associations you have with getting to work. Now, if you start telling me about, I don’t know, a trip that you took to China and it has nothing to do with work, I may be like, “Oh, OK. Really interesting. Earlier you mentioned da, da, da,” and then get you back on track.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Bring them back, yeah. OK.

Indi Young: It generally doesn’t happen. Generally people will just start unpacking and unpacking and smaller and smaller bits will come out and you get deeper and deeper into why they did the things they did, what were they thinking? What was the history behind that thinking? What were those guiding principles and how do they get made? What were the reasons for the preferences that they chose? Oftentimes I’ll ask people, you know, “Why do you prefer taking the bicycle as opposed to the bus?”

They’re like, “I just like it better,” and like, “How did that form?”

Poornima Vijayashanker: Like, what? Yeah.

Indi Young: Right? They’re like, “You know, I don’t know. Let’s see, oh you know, well, it was blah, blah, blah.” Sometimes it takes a few, “Oh you know it was”es, but they get down into that source material, that root material. That’s what I’m really after to form empathy so that you are understanding this human component, so that you’re looking at it from a purist point of view not a point of view of a problem solver.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yes, so neutralizing your reactions so that you’re not guiding them in any way and letting them share what they want to share and just really listening, but also practicing that turning off your own tendency to play that sort of Sherlock Holmes detective character, because you’re always trying to think one step ahead, but letting them guide more of the conversation and instead steering it.

Indi Young: Yeah.

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK. Got it.

Indi Young: Another thing that happens is that a person will hear somebody start to go on to a topic, they’re like, “This is my favorite topic. I’m going to start really digging into it or asking leading questions about it.” Or maybe the personal will come close to that topic and veer away and you’re like, “No! Turn around. Talk to me about this.” You would never do that if you were actually in a tour in a foreign city with a tour guide, and you’re standing there on the corner and the tour guide is explaining the history of what happened at this corner and you’re like, “Wow, there’s this amazing building down there and I’m into amazing buildings so I’m going to ask him about the amazing building,” it has nothing to do with the tour. You wouldn’t do that. It’s the same habit.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Staying on the path.

Indi Young: This is maybe a rope to grasp as you’re in this listening session.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Are there people that find it difficult to practice empathy?

Indi Young: Yeah. They don’t know that they find it difficult to practice empathy a lot of people wouldn’t…by mentioning this, say, “I think of myself as an empathetic person.”

Poornima Vijayashanker: Is that like compassionate? Are they equating it with that?

Indi Young: No. Not even necessarily but the places where I see that happening are the places where people are so used to telling everybody about what they think, and where their expertise is, and how they solve problems, that they don’t leave room for the other person to speak. I just have somebody show up the other day who wants wants to do something on his property and he’s like, “Well I want to be sure that my neighbors are OK with this since I’m talking to each neighbor, and getting their feedback,” and he proceeded to spend the entire time telling me how his way is going to work and where it came from and how his ideas are better. I’m like, “Wow. OK. Narcissist.” I also just did a class for some law students who have had some experience in law firms, and they’re all like, “You know, in the law firms everybody there is pretty much into their own world and all about sort of posturing,” very difficult to get someone to actually be empathetic in those scenarios.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Got it. OK. I’m sure a lot of our viewers out there will be empathetic people and be able to practice empathy. Let’s switch gears and talk about how after you’ve practiced a listening session and you’ve hopefully gotten a deep understanding of your other customers or coworkers, how you can turn that into actionable insights for your business.

Indi Young: Maybe an example?

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yes, that would be great. Yeah.

Indi Young: From time to time I do my own little research projects, one of which involved a faux insurance company. We were exploring what goes through people’s minds during a near-miss accident. They wanted to understand this because they had some company goals which were really around reducing the number of claims, the number of accidents and things like that so, “How can we do that?”

“Well, let’s understand how people think during a near-miss accident.”

There were a couple of really strong patterns that came out of this. I actually spoke to a lot of people about this and one of the patterns was kind of like, “I need to improve my habits because I’m mad at myself for doing it wrong, or I’m embarrassed, or I really want to change what I’m doing so this never happens to me again.” Another pattern was that, “I want other people to know about this. I want some authority to know about it,” so either we can prevent it from happening to someone else or we can prevent that person from doing this again, to change their behavior, detrimental.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Indi Young: Then another pattern was kind of regaining my mental balance after one of these near-miss accidents. It’s like, “You know I’m like freaked out so I have to take a second.” There were a couple of other things. One of the things that the insurance organization was interested in was matching it up against those goals of reducing the future claims, but also they have a perennial goal of increasing membership, but this new sort of the last couple years of increasing their social capital, you know, “It’s what everybody is talking about,” and they read it in HBR and blah, blah, blah.

One of the ideas was being able to warn other people about the hazards, like a couple of people were driving and there was ice on the road, spun out, it was a hill. There were a couple of other cases like this, bridges being out—let other people know about this so that maybe in real time other people’s navigation systems can say, “Oh, oops! Ice on hill here. You may want to drive the other way.” This is all predicated on driving.

They were all excited about doing that and maybe getting that information out in a variety of channels, not just navigation systems but a couple of other channels that could help people who have different habits because each person solves that getting to work problem in a different way.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Got it. We’ve talked about these listening sessions and how to derive insights from them. Final question for you: what are one to two simple things that our viewers can do immediately after the session when it comes to thinking about cognitive empathy and putting into practice?

Indi Young: You mean besides noticing the word science and how it’s used?

Poornima Vijayashanker: That’s a good one, yes. That’s number one.

Indi Young: One of the things that I encourage people to do to get into the feeling of a listening session…a lot of the time this is sort of like, “Yeah. OK. Sounds great for somebody else but not so much for me,” and yet you have to stuff your brain with knowledge. You have this engineering brain, you need to solve this problem, humans are a part of it, so how do you get over that barrier? Practice, doing it in informal situations so you can get your toe in the water. Think of a couple of places maybe that you are during the day, maybe in line at lunchtime, trying to pick up your coffee, maybe—

Poornima Vijayashanker: Dinner time.

Indi Young: Your dinner time, it’s actually really hard to do with people that you are in contact with constantly because you end up getting in habits with each other.

Poornima Vijayashanker: I see.

Indi Young: This is also true of work teams.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Interesting.

Indi Young: I like familiar strangers, maybe at the gym, somewhere different, checking out at the grocery store. Notice something about another person and say something. I’m at the bus stop today and I’m like, “Nice earrings,” and the lady starts telling me the story. See if you can get over that initial contact and then proceed just a little ways down the road toward finding out like why she got those earrings.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yes. You probably don’t want to ask her directly why did she get the earrings, you want her to guide the conversation a little bit more?

Indi Young: You do, but you could ask her, you know, “Tell me, what made you pick them out?” There’s a balance there, you don’t want her to feel too uncomfortable with you, and because you’re in a familiar stranger’s point of view you have a limited time with each other, you both know that it’s going to end so you’re safe that way. There are a lot of other things, techniques that you can use to start making her feel comfortable, that’s all in Chapter 4 of the book.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Great, so in this latest book, Practical Empathy, do you have for our viewers some techniques in here that we can tease them with?

Indi Young: Sure. Yeah. One of them you’ve been doing, because this is not a listening session. You said, “OK. Great,” and you also said, “Let’s switch gears.”

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Indi Young: Which means you are in control of the conversation, I am not in control, I’m following you along. When you’re in a listening session, you do the opposite.

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK. This is a good way for picking up some of those cues where you might not want to be in control and you want to give the other person a chance to speak.

Indi Young: Yeah, exactly. You’re not going to do this all the time and there are times to use this and times to use other techniques such as what we’re doing, this sort of formal interview.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Got it.

Indi Young: It’s not to say that this replaces that, but this is an augmented skill that can really change the way that those creative ideas pop out. The things in the book, I’ve organized it into sort of like why your organization would find this important, how to actually develop empathy and then how to apply empathy. A lot of the time people, that whole “walking in the shoes” thing, people think, “Great. I’m just going to concoct a story and pretend to walk in their shoes and they don’t take the time to develop the empathy.” That whole middle section I think is the most important part of the book, at least from my point of view.

I get comments from people about their minds being blown or exploded, or something like that, and it’s really violent sounding. The idea is that this is sort of an orthogonal twist on the way that we solve something, and yet it falls right into the way that we solve problems, that whole engineering mindset. My clients are incredibly enthused about this progress. It’s generally sort of like the, “OK. What is this sort of squishy weird thing?” It’s like trying to eat something new, you’re like, “OK. I’ll taste it,” and then you hear a little bit more about the history, you feel it. You actually do listening sessions yourself, you go away from it for a minute, or a week, or somebody went over the holiday break last winter, came back and she’s like, “Oh my God. This is changing my life. I’m more aware of when I’m making assumptions. I’m more aware of how people are talking and when I’m just skimming along the top and letting that fly. Maybe that’s fine, but maybe I do want to get deeper with somebody.” This is the part that people are really excited about.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Interesting. Yeah, that’s great. Just to recap, we started off by talking about what is empathy and Indi gave us about four types of empathy. The one that we focused on was cognitive empathy because it can really help us when it comes to understanding our coworkers as well as our customers in business and as we build products. Then we talked about how it’s often misused. Indi shared some dark patterns with us, and then we talked about why it’s actually important and how it can help you grow your organization. Then Indi shared how to practice it through listening sessions, but you can also start simply by digging into conversations deeper, even with just familiar strangers, to get you practicing empathy.

Finally, we have a challenge for you. We’d like to know: what do you do today to understand your customers and your coworkers? Do you have certain techniques like the listening sessions, or do you have some other techniques? How have these benefited your organization as well as the products that you have made? Let us know your responses in the comments below this blog and the three best responses will get a special giveaway from our sponsor Pivotal Tracker, and be highlighted in our weekly newsletter. Thanks again to our guest, Indi Young, for sharing today with us your expertise on practicing empathy.

Indi Young: It was my pleasure.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Thank you. And to you our viewers for tuning in today and to our sponsor, Pivotal Tracker, for helping to support in producing this episode of FemgineerTV. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, then please share it with your friends, your coworkers, and your boss. Subscribe to our YouTube channel to get the next episode where we’ll have special guest Edmond Lau, the author of The Effective Engineer. Thanks for tuning in today and I’m really looking forward to reading your challenge responses. …

This episode of FemgineerTV is brought to you by Pivotal Tracker; build better software, faster. Check out Indi Young’s latest book, Practical Empathy. Visit rosenfeldmedia.com/books/practical-empathy. Enter the coupon code MAGNIFY, for a special offer. Join the Twitter chat. Indi and Poornima will be hosting a Twitter chat to discuss the episode. Join the conversation using the hashtag #FemgineerTV.

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