How to Build With Empathy, According to 2 Dev Leaders
To be a successful engineer building successful products, you need to know your end user. What are their current circumstances and their goals? How can your team’s technical expertise — combined with that of your colleagues in design — help them overcome any barriers to those goals? The sense of empathy that comes from knowing one’s user lays a crucial foundation for a successful product or service.
One of the most consequential ways a software engineer can affect a user’s life is by building and maintaining fintech products. From microlending and digital banking to investment software, fintech serves everyone from the wage worker to financial services leaders in high corporate offices.
So how does a typical software engineer — who is far from a minimum wage earner, but also not an expert on the needs of your average financial services executive — build empathy with those end users?
There are a number of methods: user research, building diverse teams and actually living the client’s experience. We asked two engineering leaders at fintech companies how they build those institutional links between developers and end users.
Matthew Markham is a partner with the technology arm at consultancy firm Capco, helping clients implement digital banking platforms as well as enterprise architecture solutions. Capco is headquartered in London and has eight offices across the United States.
James Lo is a senior vice president of product development for Green Dot Corporation, a fintech company based in Pasadena, California offering a number of digital banking products. Based in Shanghai, Lo also heads Green Dot’s International Development Center.
Put heads together with stakeholders
Markham: Before we start any development effort at Capco, we make sure the team talks to the product owners and clients to understand what the end goal is. We develop personas to drive empathy as well, but we continually reinforce and work with clients to make sure we’re hitting the right tone.
Lo: At Green Dot, we work to build close partnerships across business, user experience and product teams to ensure we have a cohesive approach to understanding who our customers are, the daily flow of their financial lives and how we can make them easier. We often share and discuss research articles, reports and analysis on the underbanked and unbanked, dive into UX research results, review and analyze market data from individual business units as a broader team and share specific customer stories.
Put yourself in the user’s shoes
Markham: As we deal with financial services, the easiest example is to ask our teams to think about how they interact with their bank on their banking app or website. How does that work? What do you like? What would you improve? We all have that collective experience to draw from and help shape our delivery.
Lo: We routinely design and create opportunities for our engineers to “walk in the shoes of our customers” and use our products under the same circumstances we know many of our customers face. For example, we load 500 dollars onto a card and only use that card for all financial transactions during the week to understand how it feels to use the product, what features are most helpful (or not) and, most importantly, how it feels when something doesn’t work well or goes wrong. Of course, we also host regular design sprints with our product and UX teams before any lines of code are written.
“Our engineering teams are made up of a diverse group of backgrounds, so asking the team to think this way pulls in all those varied experiences across race, gender, preference and/or ethnicity.”
Infuse empathy into your culture
Lo: We deliver and showcase key messages everywhere — throughout office spaces (when we’re in the office) and through graphics, videos, screensavers and other channels to remind our engineering teams and broader employee base about who we are serving. We also have customers and employees share their experiences (good and bad) using our products at all hands meetings and other internal events.
Lo: We host hackathons that present common customer challenges for engineers to solve, team building activities designed with built-in product/feature/customer challenges and work customer stories and insights into new hire onboarding.
Internal DEI efforts have a concrete impact
Markham: I would also note that our engineering teams are made up of a diverse group of backgrounds, so asking the team to think this way pulls in all those varied experiences across race, gender, preference and/or ethnicity.
Lo: Finally, we leverage usage metrics around how our products are being used to inform less-than-smooth experiences, and are in close touch with our customers’ experiences (through focus groups, beta testing and customer service) to have a continuous understanding of what’s working and, more importantly, where we can improve.