Customer empathy—it's just like riding a bike

Posted on February 21, 2019
4 min read


Anyone who’s ever learned to ride a bike can likely recall their maiden voyage. The apprehension, excitement, hesitation, and flat-out terror that came with those first few pedals without training wheels are still palpable, years later.

As a cyclist, whether you’re on a deserted country road or a crowded city street, you’re constantly reminded of what’s going on around you. The truck that barrels past a bit too fast, the pothole you almost didn’t see in time, the shattered glass bottle in the shoulder, seemingly everything is out to get you and you have to stay alert, cautious, and somewhat impossibly, try to anticipate what lies in wait on the road ahead.

Recently, Twitter user @Newyorkist shared an innovative way that the Mexico City metro bus system is helping bus drivers empathize with this experience.

The training included an exercise in which drivers were asked to ride in the bike lanes as city buses whizzed by. The experience was eye-opening for many drivers and helped them understand how dangerous and sometimes terrifying it can be to ride a bike on city streets. It’s a great example of helping people understand how different experiences are for certain audiences, or as many of us refer to it: customer empathy.

Empathizing with customers in an increasingly digital world, however, may take a bit more effort. If you can find ways to put your teams directly in the shoes of your customers, then, by all means, take advantage of those opportunities when you can.

In the meantime, keep these tips in mind throughout your development cycle to help assure that you’re always considering the full customer experience when creating products or services.

Talk to your customers and users

Whether you call them customers, users, or something else, it’s crucial to have an open line of communication with the people you’re building products for.

This is an important mantra to keep in mind—one you’ve probably heard many times before, yet it’s no less relevant today,

You are not your user.

Just like the bus drivers, those of us who conceptualize, design, build, market, and support products can’t always see the full spectrum of experiences that work touches. The only way to gain that perspective is by getting right to the source.

There are many ways to do this, including remote usability testing and customer interviews. Usability testing is a great way to observe your customers as they try to achieve specific goals when using a product. You’ll pinpoint any areas of confusion or frustration and get a better sense for the various circumstantial influences that may impact an experience.

For example, imagine a father holding his young, squirming child while trying to schedule a rideshare service to pick them up from the airport. That father isn’t just casually scrolling through the app. He’s distracted by his location, probably tired from his travels, watching their luggage, and of course, most of all, making sure his little one is safe (and hopefully not throwing a temper tantrum).

By building in regular check-ins with customers through interviews or usability testing—or, even better, both!—you’ll keep your finger on the pulse of the people you’re building your products for and will gain the much-needed empathy to craft the experiences they love.

Share human insights with your team

True customer empathy is something that lives within everyone in an organization. If only the product or design teams are connecting with customers, you risk losing all that hard-earned understanding the moment another team—one that’s not connecting to customers—contributes to the experience.

One way to help bridge this empathy gap is by sharing your customer research results with your team. Sharing video clips from usability testing or key moments from a customer interview during team meetings is a great way to get everyone aligned around the problems you’re trying to solve and the people you’re solving them for.

You can take it a step further and share interesting insights throughout each stage of the development process via shared communication tools like Slack or Google Docs. Bringing your team in on the insights you discover will help reinforce your bond with your customer and continue to help other teams build and maintain customer empathy.

Encourage everyone to talk to customers

In our experience, one of the most powerful tools for creating empathy is connecting with the customer. If you want your organization to fully commit to being customer-centered, then that means every team should have access to customers.

While this concept might be intimidating to folks that aren’t familiar with running usability tests or conducting customer interviews, it shouldn’t be. Scaling your customer research efforts across teams empowers everyone to not only connect with customers but to take pride and ownership of the results as well.

Every team will have different goals, so having each team conduct some of their own research will help them get to the insight they need faster, ultimately getting the customer what they want as quickly as possible.

Make customer empathy second nature

Customer empathy, like riding a bike, takes practice and persistence to get it right. But once you do, it becomes second nature.

By incorporating customer insight into every stage of your development cycle you’re helping reinforce the importance of empathy. Before long, your teams will naturally turn to human insight to ensure customer empathy.

More resources you may like:

What is Customer Empathy?

Empathy: The UX Pro's Secret Weapon

Why (and how) Marketers Should Build Empathy for Their Customers

Want to learn more?

If you’d like to learn how UserTesting can help you understand your customers through on-demand human insights, contact us here.

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