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To Stay Ahead of the Competition, Start with Empathy

To Stay Ahead of the Competition, Start with Empathy

I recently outlined the difference between customer experience (CX) and user experience (UX) in a blog post on the intersection of these two domains, and it got me thinking about why UX is such a critical part of product design and ultimately, the customer’s experience.

Some of this is just part of the times we’re living in. End users today have higher expectations for digital and mobile experiences with every brand they interact with than they did two years ago. These expectations come to bear on everything from the digital intake form at an urgent care clinic to their grocery store’s online order system.

To get ahead and stay ahead in this highly competitive landscape, you must design your product’s UX with deep empathy for each customer and the highest goals for what their experience of that product will be.

For example, the metaphor of the “desktop” is learned and functional, but the metaphor behind “filing” things may not track for Gen Z. The same problem appears for mobile technology users on the other end of the spectrum: gestures like scrolling, tapping, and pinching are not necessarily familiar to older adults who have been resistant to adopting screen-based experiences.

With this in mind, here are three important lessons in no particular order that I’ve learned by looking at real UX examples and thinking about why anticipating your customer’s needs based on a deep, empathetic understanding of their experiences can distinguish your brand.

Bring Empathy to Video Call Navigation

If you’ve ever found yourself on a video call on a platform that’s new to you, you know how disorienting it can be to search for the volume settings, the chat box, and the button that will eventually allow you to disconnect or end the call.

For browser users of Zoom, this disorientation infamously does not abate, even for those who use it regularly. The primary complaint? To leave a Zoom call using the service in a browser window, you must click on the words “Leave Call” and then confirm by clicking a pop-up bubble that you do, indeed, want to leave the call.

While this extra click may have been built as a security measure intended to spare participants from accidentally leaving a call, it’s a known pain point for remote workers who feel burdened by the amount of time they spend on calls, toggling between different video conferencing platforms. And that Zoom button? It reminds them of just how badly they wish they could just hang up.

It’s easy to understand as a UX designer that this two-step process was well-intended and should have simply helped users avoid an embarrassing video call gaffe. Afterall, Zoom launched long before the pandemic, at a time when most professionals still worked from offices where video conferencing was not the main channel of communication.

In today’s landscape, an empathetic approach could deliver a welcome user interface (UI) update – or at least the option – for users to eliminate the second step process. This type of change may seem small, but it can transform the end user’s experience of a product.

Afterall, users shouldn’t have to adapt to tech; tech can and should adapt to user’s needs to help solve their problems as they evolve.

Design to Meet Users Where They Are

When I say it’s important to design to meet users where they are, I mean this in the most literal sense, take for example ridesharing app design.

I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, where I rarely saw a taxi or carried cash. As a result, I didn’t have a way to get a ride when I needed one, and even if I did call a taxi, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing that: not knowing when the taxi would arrive or how much it would cost was a barrier to engaging with the way so many other people used to navigate the city when they’re far from public transit options.

The arrival of companies like Uber and Lyft changed this very situation for me and for many others. They gave us the ability to learn where the driver is before they arrive, give us the information we need to safely identify the right vehicle, and a way to cancel the ride if we change our mind in advance.

While there are many reasons to complain about ridesharing apps and their recent spike in fares, these apps raised the bar for UX designers of delivery apps, airlines, and shipping companies because they successfully helped end users locate the information they need without having to interact with a customer support representative or even, frankly, the driver.

How did they get these great ideas? They did the work of talking to real people who didn’t have access to taxis or public transportation to find out what the barriers to getting a ride were for their target audience. And then, they built a product that solves those problems for them.

By providing superlative in-app UX, rideshare companies redefined user expectations for digital experiences by anticipating customer concerns – often worries about their safety or whether they’ll arrive on time – and giving them access to the reassurance they need.

Good UX Sets the Bar for All Other UX

As a principle, people remember good experiences, and those set the bar. (The same, unfortunately, is true of bad experiences.) To ensure your product stands out, as a UX designer, you must keep one eye on the competitive landscape.

Within your vertical, customers will compare you to the competition, but they’ll also compare their experience with you to the best experiences they’ve had – whatever the vertical.

One of the most influential companies in the past decade when it comes to UX for online retail is Amazon. Their UX team carefully studies shopper behavior on their site and they’ve made it their mission to reduce the number of clicks to purchasing and becoming a repeat purchaser.

The 1-Click was patented, trademarked, and pioneered online by Amazon, and it was popularized by returning customers who loved the ease of their online shopping experience. By reducing the number clicks it takes for a repeat customer to go selecting an item to checkout, Amazon found a way to reduce shopping cart abandonment and deliver an empathetic experience that solves two specific pain points for shoppers:

  1. Trust. Online payment is easier and less stressful when you don’t have to locate and enter your credit card information every time you want to make a purchase on a trusted website.
  2. Convenience. Customers don’t have to endure the annoyances of shopping for household staples like toilet paper, groceries, and cleaning supplies in a retail location. Rather than making a list, driving to a store, and waiting in a checkout line to present your items and then a credit card, you can go to Amazon, type in what you’re looking for, and click one button to have it delivered to your door.

Amazon’s UX team clearly understands what shoppers want and their designs consistently make it easy and convenient for shoppers to get what they need, when they need it so that Amazon is consistently the hero of the day, rather than being another barrier in the way of daily life.

Since the behemoth’s patent on 1-Click expired in 2017, this feature is easier to find on other online retailers’ sites, but the advantage Amazon gained in nearly two decades of having a superior UX is difficult to measure on its own.

A superlative, reliable UX like Amazon’s sets the tone for your engagement with that brand going forward; one good or bad user experience can set the tone for any future engagement. This goes to show that if you meet end users with an intuitive, empathetic UI, you’ll see the returns on this investment in design excellence.

Design Is at the Core of Your Product, Empathy Drives Positive User Experiences

When I’m trying to explain UX to folks who aren’t familiar with the concept, I often say that UX is looking at a problem in its current state, understanding what the end user’s pain points and needs are, and then addressing them, perhaps with a technological solution. How your customers interact with your UI is their UX, and it’s my job as a designer to ensure that interaction is as low-friction as possible.

Why? Because I want them to keep coming back to use every application, website, or platform I design with a positive impression from their last visit. For all the examples I can provide of the importance of empathy, it all comes back to this hope for customers, that I’ll make their interaction with technology so easy that they don’t second-guess the way they’re using the technology they hold in their hand. That, at its core, is an empathetic wish for their day.

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