Contour line drawings of faces with green and cyan shapes for Age of Empathy article.

Change of Plans

Age of Empathy

By Seamus Dolan

As with all stages of the product development process, empathy is a powerful tool in Discoveries at Slalom Build. Empathy is at the heart of our human-centered design philosophy and the driving force behind how we deliver value to our clients and their users.

Discovery is the initial phase of a project in which we work with clients to define a solution and develop a roadmap for how to build it. To define requirements that are both user-focused and technology-focused, we often help clients have difficult internal conversations about priorities, trade-offs and compromises. It is imperative to establish trust early, which begins with empathy and a focus on understanding.

Discoveries typically span 4–8 weeks and include various team members. On the client side, we often collaborate with a product owner, various product stakeholders, technology enablement partners and potential end users. The three most active Build participants are:

  • A Solution Architect to focus on future-state architecture, integrations and estimating the complexity of proposed solutions
  • An Experience Designer to lead stakeholder and user interviews, identify user personas, the experience of a solution required to meet the user’s needs, and prototype a solution
  • A Solution Owner to help structure the engagement, lead interviews, prioritize features and develop a backlog

In order to get a full picture of how our various capabilities employ empathy in Discoveries, we had a leader from each of these capabilities answer the same set of questions.

How do you employ empathy in your role on Discoveries?

Samantha Ingram, Experience Design: Experience design is often under-represented — and the ability to connect with your team and stakeholders in meaningful ways and communicate the value of our work in ways they can connect with is absolutely essential to driving a great user experience — both for the end user and the working team.

Greg Andonian, Software Engineering: You need to be able to see where client technical stakeholders are coming from and why they made decisions. It is your responsibility as the engineering lead to have empathy for client engineers and help foster that in your team.

Deeann Partlow, Solution Ownership: A successful Discovery is not only about listening to the customer, but is also about paying attention to the project team’s intuition. A good portion of the exploration done in Discoveries is started by team members voicing their thoughts and opinions about how they think the customer is feeling during this project’s time and place.

How does focusing on the emotions or needs of users impact how you understand requirements for a given product?

Samantha: How we implement, surface or bury features of a requirement is really dependent on understanding the user’s needs and priorities, and having the empathy to drive through feature designs that reduce friction during these user touch points.

Greg: Assumptions on the engineering team can be very expensive. Without putting yourself in the shoes of the customer it is difficult to not use your own distorted lens when viewing requirements.

Deeann: Not only do we need to understand our client, executive sponsor, project sponsor, product owner, and stakeholders, but we need to understand our client’s customer and how the product we’re building will help them.

Can empathy impact your relationship with stakeholders?

Samantha: Understanding the full human allows for success in difficult conversations, and openness and willingness for them to trust your team beyond their traditional comfort zone, which is often critical for cross-functional project success.

Greg: You need to have empathy to have an authentic relationship with anyone.

Deeann: Being open and present and listening to your stakeholders’ stories, their pains and gains, will build the basis of the entire engagement and is therefore, hugely important to the project.

Can empathy lead to better prioritization or technical decisions?

Samantha: 100%. In human-centered design any human that interfaces with our project is considered in the process. Empathy for all of them allows us to understand the largest pain points across the spectrum, from the technical team’s implementation to the end user’s experience.

Greg: You need it to understand what is important for your clients and be able to view problems from their perspective.

Deeann: We try to factor in as many perspectives as we can in order to build the most robust backlog with the most important features being built first. This does right by the client and by the users of the product.

One of the most valuable deliverables of a Slalom Build Discovery is a product roadmap, including a prioritized backlog with MVP features and stories for two initial sprints of development. How does empathy facilitate that work?

Samantha: [It provides] an ability to communicate the larger overall vision…so the context of the next few sprints is understood. Understanding what information the SO and SA need to execute and test stories is critical — and an empathetic perspective on what one would need to know is a really important tool.

Greg: Creating a prioritized backlog involves a lot of give and take between the stakeholders and discovery team. It is important that the discovery team can empathize with the client team in order to push for pragmatic backlog changes that will resonate with stakeholders

Deeann: Approaching Discovery with the goal of building a product users and customers alike will love will help populate your backlog with the right feature sets and help guide prioritization.

How can people in project discoveries become more empathetic?

Samantha: Ask others about their opinions and experiences early and often. If you came to the table with assumptions, be willing to throw them out. Talk to as many people who are involved in the product lifecycle as you can to truly understand the largest cross-section of feedback.

Greg: By fostering genuine relationships with clients.

Deeann: Taking a 360 degree feedback viewpoint is very helpful when leading a project Discovery. Making sure you keep in mind all the constituencies around you, project team, client team, account team, build team, and local team, and communicating and keeping them informed helps ensure that no one feels left in the dark.

Discoveries are fast-paced and employ active listening and understanding. We create the best solutions but taking in as many perspectives and options as possible. The ability to shift between mindsets and viewpoints is beneficial not only to creativity but also to problem solving and prioritization. More than anything, this demands empathy to achieve a deep understanding of user needs and business value.