Apply Empathy to What You Create

Look for Patterns

Create Behavioral Segments from the Patterns

Inspire Ideas

Solve for More

Practice These Skills


In this chapter, the focus is on using empathy—in particular, for the things you create in your work. Empathy allows you to expand the number of angles you consider when you make something—it increases your horizon. Because you have multiplied your understanding of the purposes people are trying to achieve, you now have a better sense of where you want to shift and adjust how you support those purposes. For example, instead of leaping to the conclusion that people need a faster way to file their purchase orders or take attendance in a class, you might instead help people skip these tedious tasks and focus on activities that require uniquely human engagement. You can explore better ways to support the intent, customized for certain types of behavior.

Empathy is not always about revelation. Often, the knowledge developed from empathy is not surprising: it consists of stuff you already know, but possibly didn’t pay a lot of attention to or maybe misremembered. Even if it does seem obvious in retrospect, the reminder is powerful enough to have it documented.

Empathy will also improve your clarity about your strategy. You will be able to deliberate with intelligence between options in terms of target audience or direction. You’ll be able to plan beyond the minimally viable product. And, if you’re curious, you will be able to pinpoint where believable guesses in the past led your organization astray.


The phrase “things you make” encompasses a broad range. These things can be physical or digital. Moreover, they can be internal to your organization or external—facing partners, customers, vendors, or others. They can be significant things that take months to craft or tiny things that only take 15 minutes to make. Some of these things are not traditionally thought of as requiring empathy to create.

• Product

• Service

• Process

• Policy

• Content

Anything that enables others to understand or achieve something comes under this heading. To this point, the phrase “your work” doesn’t just refer to activities you get paid for. It can also mean volunteer activities or any role you regularly take on for a group of people: coach, planner, advisor, etc.

Empathy is often used for persuasion. Instead, for the highest impact on your work, use empathy in support of people. Empathy in support means being willing to acknowledge another person’s intent and work with it, morphing your own intent because of the empathy you developed. This is the empathic mindset.

Look for Patterns

In the previous chapters of this book, you practiced emptying your mind so you could absorb and understand someone else’s thinking and reactions. Beginning with this chapter, you will start applying the knowledge you gathered. You get to unleash your powers of analysis and pattern recognition to synthesize some larger observations from the things people told you.

This work potentially involves editing summaries, if you have them, to clarify any uncertainties. It’s about splitting up summaries that got accidentally jammed together. Then it’s about figuring out what the intent was behind the thinking and using that intent to gather together similar summaries from other people. And, it’s also about deciding what to leave out for now.

If you don’t have summaries, you can do all this in a more intuitive manner. Mentally and verbally, you review similarities you see across different people, and then you jot down what the overall intent was for each trend you recognize. Because these patterns are written in broad terms, a good portion of all the concepts detailed using summaries will actually be covered—around 25%–30%. That’s good enough for a lot of circumstances.

Cognitively, you are using a different process in your mind than when you were developing empathy. For the summaries, you were strictly summarizing what you thought each person was trying to express. For the patterns across the stories, you will be using your analytic mind to find similarities (see Figure 6.1). Usually, people are better at one or the other—summarizing or analyzing. If you’re lucky, and you work on a team, you have a balance of skills so that team members can do different parts of the work. And if you don’t have a balance—or if you are a solo practitioner—that’s why the summaries are optional and from-memory pattern-finding is viable.


Now you can aggregate concepts across different people. You will also double-check that the information is presented clearly and is relevant to your scope.

Quick Method: Seek Patterns by Memory

If you did not write summaries, you’ll seek patterns in what you remember that people said. This is a faster method, so it comes with some drawbacks. The main drawback is your memory and the tricks it plays with the significance, frequency, and meaning behind what people said. With this method, it’s probably better to stick to the really obvious concepts that people brought up and skip the little details that you might not have remembered correctly.

As you hear each additional story, you might start noticing patterns. You can make note of these patterns after each listening session, but don’t forget to amend your notes when it turns out a “pattern” was only between two people. You’ll want to pay attention to the bigger patterns—those that stretch across more people.

You might have transcripts of each session, so that’s an additional way to remind yourself of what people were saying. Take a bit of time to review your post-session notes or those transcripts before you start to summarize the bigger patterns.

A good collaborative way to do this is, after a listening session, for team members to record the outstanding concepts for that person in a shared spreadsheet. Team members can also spend a little time putting the concepts in some sort of order. After the next session, new lines are added to the spreadsheet next to earlier related concepts. You can mark each line with an identification number in case you want to track down the source later. Note that this work takes place after each session so that the full attention of every listener is on the person during the session.

Rich Method: Look for Patterns Across Summaries

If you have summaries and want to get all the details corralled in your patterns, the most important point to know is that this process of finding patterns cannot be automated. You can’t put all the same verbs together or all the “feel relieved” reactions together. Each summary means a different thing, and most of those meanings are nuanced. To find the patterns, consider each one of them separately. It may sound overwhelming, but it is absorbing work and goes fast, especially for minds that fall into flow with this kind of work.

Estimate the Hours Needed

To find all the patterns, you will need about 20 hours for a set of 300 summaries. That means going through 15 summaries an hour. You may not use absolutely all the summaries—only the concepts that feel like relevant patterns—so this number could turn out to be lower.

You can make this happen within a work week, if you happen to have a couple other people to work with. Do half of the work together as a group, in little intervals, and the other half of the work individually.

For example, schedule a two-hour working session with your team once a day. That’s 10 hours. Then assign a team member to work on the patterns solo for two hours each day, where it rotates, so that everybody can get their other work done, too. For example, Alix owns it for two hours Monday and Wednesday. Barrie owns it for two hours Tuesday and Friday. Camille owns it for two hours Thursday. This makes up the other 10 hours of effort.

Consider One Summary at a Time

It’s easiest to start with one summary, find other summaries that seem similar in concept, and then move on to another.1 After several passes through the whole set of data, the only summaries left will be those you’re not interested in. This technique is known as affinity grouping.

Pick one summary that interests you. It doesn’t really matter which one, but choose a concept that you remember other people also talking about. As you find similar summaries from other people, place them next to the first summary. This physical “placing” can happen in a text document, a spreadsheet, with sticky notes, index cards, or however else you like to work.

The first pass through your summaries will take longer than any subsequent pass. To get started faster, have several people working on it at the same time, connected remotely or in the same room. Divide up all the summaries so that each person “owns” a different subset to scan through. As you pair concepts, discuss aloud the underlying intent that binds them together. As a team, you can get through 10–15 summaries in the course of an hour.


When you are working together and want to use a single word as shorthand to refer to a summary, say the verb that begins the summary. Or say a few of the verbs of the summaries that are collected in a group. “Does this new summary belong with the ‘wonder-consider’ set or the ‘decide-choose-select’ set?” Verbs are more illustrative than nouns for describing behavior. (Also, this is a good test to see if your verbs are vague or expressive.)

Momentum is important, especially in the face of everyday demands on your time at work. You will probably want to get this done quickly. The advantage of being quick is that your memory of the other patterns will remain fresh. Drawing it out over months means that you’re reacquainting yourself with existing patterns again and again. Choose the approach that works best for the moment and stay flexible, changing your approach for subsequent rounds; different circumstances may arise that require a different pace. It all depends on how you want to work at each juncture.


Finding patterns is about looking for a concept with the same underlying purpose across individuals.

What do the patterns end up looking like when everyone you listened to has been studied, summarized, and aggregated? You will find some concepts that four or five or more “voices” bring up (see Figure 6.2). You will find other concepts represented by only two or three voices. In the example from an insurance company that studied near-miss accidents (see Figure 6.3), four different voices said they “wondered what the other person involved was thinking,” while only two voices said they “imagined that the person who did this wasn’t paying attention.” The number of voices does not indicate the importance of a pattern; importance is determined by your organization’s current focus. Also, you don’t have to formally label the patterns this way, although it helps to have something to call them.


An insurance company explored how people “experience a near-miss accident,” and these are three (of 32) aggregated patterns of thinking. The numbers in the column to the right of each summary represent each person’s unique ID number, in case you want to trace back to the quote and the transcript to reassess or explain the context.

You can list the patterns in roughly chronological order, although the order is not important—it just helps your team find a pattern in the list more easily. You can put the few patterns that are outside of the chronology (the overarching patterns that happen contiguously) at the end of the list.

You’ll know you’re all finished when everything left is unique to different people. Some of these leftovers are generalizations, which shouldn’t have been made into summaries. These generalizations can be deleted. Several of these leftover ideas might be interesting to your organization, but you need to hear more evidence from other people.

Wrap Your Mind Around the Difficult Ones

Sometimes you find a pattern that ends up being just one person’s voice, restating the same thing over and over. It isn’t a pattern, because it’s only one person. No one else said anything similar. You have a choice. You can ignore these statements entirely, or if they seem to be of importance to your organization, you can find new people and conduct additional listening sessions to see if the topic comes up again. Suggesting a change to your offerings based on one voice isn’t logical, although it is tempting if the topic seems universal. Wait until you find come corroboration from other voices.


If you do conduct additional listening sessions to see if there is corroboration out there for a concept only one person mentioned, be careful not to bring up that concept. You are never supposed to introduce topics to listening sessions because it might skew the results. If you do that, people will talk about your topic, even if they would have never brought it up on their own.

On the other hand, if it seems too difficult to make a match between two summaries, then maybe one summary isn’t written quite right. Try editing the summary to see if you can bring out some clarity in the similarity. Alternatively, your edit might make the two summaries more distinct from each other. Clarify the summary with a better verb, or recast it as a reaction instead of thinking, or vice-versa.

Or possibly you will encounter two summaries from the same person about the same incident. Just delete one of them. You don’t need to rigorously collect every instance of the concept from that one person. If you don’t want to delete one, then choose one summary and merge the quotes together. If the summaries are from the same person and describe the same concept but are from two different incidents, then go ahead and leave them both present if you like.

Assess Your Confidence

When you find patterns across listening sessions, how confident can you be about whether you got them right? Are they reliable? The degree to which the same concept repeats across different people is a good indicator of reliability in qualitative data.2 If only one person talks about a concept, it is not a pattern. That is simple. If two people talk about a concept, it’s a possible pattern—you judge whether to keep the concept by whether it is likely that others would also bring it up if you conducted more listening sessions. That is a judgment based on your own experience, so double-check it with as many peers in different areas as you can. If five people talk about a concept that seems foreign to you, it is a valid pattern despite your unfamiliarity. In the end, you will keep the concepts that are important to your organization, so the selection process should lean toward where you want to focus. Double-check this also, because a concept you leave behind might be more significant than you are used to thinking.

Finding patterns is an inductive process, not deductive. You might be used to working in a deductive manner, since that approach is used for most problem solving. But finding patterns in people’s reasoning is not problem solving. For inductive reasoning, you don’t start with a hypothesis—instead, you let things form a structure by their own characteristics.

Deductive is top-down: Form a hypothesis, gather and evaluate data, and confirm or reject the hypothesis, which may then support or revise a theory you had.

Inductive is bottom-up: Define a scope to explore, gather information, form a hypothesis based on that information, and explore the probable exceptions to this conclusion.3 There is not epistemic4 certainty.

There is also such a thing as false patterns. Humans have an innate talent for pattern recognition, but sometimes it can get carried away. A mild example is when you see a face in the components of a fire hydrant, a mailbox, or an electrical outlet, and suddenly these things are imbued with emotion, based on their “facial expressions.” You feel sorry for the sad-looking mailbox. False patterns can occur when applying empathy, too. You might have something in mind, even subconsciously, and you mash different summaries together to represent this concept. You probably won’t know you’re creating a false pattern. The way to stop yourself is to quit when summaries get difficult to match. Difficulty could be the product of your mind’s attempt to force summaries into a pattern you hope exists.

The Difference Between Summary-and Memory-Generated Patterns

The biggest advantage of memory-generated patterns is that they’re quicker to pull together. If you have a small team, you may want to work this way most of the time. If your team needs the proof that summaries provide, so you can persuade others and make decisions with utmost confidence, then use memory-generated patterns only when there’s a scope to explore that is already well understood.

The most obvious disadvantage of memory-generated patterns is that it relies on memory, and many concepts from the sessions will go missing.

The advantage of summary-generated patterns is that you don’t miss anything that people said. You’ll know how many voices mentioned a particular concept, and the concepts will be clarified and separated by nuances.

A disadvantage of summary-generated patterns is that, among all the detailed patterns, some of the concepts will seem less important to support from the point of view of the organization. Some of these patterns are just outside the organization’s aim, so taking the time to list them might not be a good use of resources (see Figure 6.4).


Both approaches are valid for different circumstances. Pick the approach your situation demands, and be willing to switch your approach for subsequent rounds when needed.

Create Behavioral Segments from the Patterns

You’ve heard of marketing segments. They are defined groups of people in the market that your organization aims at. Marketing segments are just one kind of behavioral segment—where the behavior is “deciding to buy.” There are myriad other kinds of behavioral segments, varying from industry to industry and between organizations within each industry. For example, in the airline industry, besides deciding to make a reservation, there are additional behaviors around contemplating a trip, deciding on flights, purchasing a ticket, and taking the flight itself. Segments help you organize your thinking around the people you support and the scenarios you are trying to help them through.

If you want to create representative groups of the people you support, the patterns you aggregated from the transcripts are a perfect source for discovering behavioral segments. You will find that some people you listened to have similar patterns of reasoning, and that there are nuanced distinctions between sets of people for a given situation. Each set of such people forms one behavioral segment. The type of behavior is defined by your scope of exploration. You name a set of segments by this behavior, such as “Deciding to Make Reservation Segments” and “Deciding on Flights Segments.”

The summaries that make up the set of reasoning provide great character depth for the behavioral segment. Depth of character provides clarity and lends creativity to idea development.


When you create behavioral segments, you’ll to know what percentage of your market each segment represents. Because most “market data” consists of purchases, digital traces people leave, preferences, and the demographic data that people are willing to report, there’s no way to link the deeper reasoning that you collected to existing “market data.” You can’t answer this question honestly in terms of a percentage, but you can say whether a segment represents a significant part of your market or not.

As time goes on, you will conduct additional listening sessions and be faced with the question of how each additional person fits into existing behavioral segments. Most of the time, a new person fits into an existing segment easily. There is never an exact match, though. You want to look at the reasoning, reactions, and guiding principles of each segment and decide which set is closest, in general, to the new person. Sometimes, you’ll encounter new people and realize there is yet another behavioral segment out there that you are just now discovering. Other times, you’ll end up making changes to existing segments based on new patterns. There are also instances where the reasoning of one person changes based on phases, as in a person traveling to a business meeting versus going on a holiday. Don’t think of your behavioral segments as rigidly defined groups; they’re humans, and very few humans are that rigid in their behavior.

Behavioral Segments First, Then Maybe Personas

Each behavioral segment can be represented by a persona.5 You do not have to represent a behavioral segment with a persona. You can work with the behavioral segments without turning them into individuals, with names, ages, faces, etc. But some people prefer the solidity of a persona as a reference point.

If you do make personas, be careful. When you use them later, try not to let their demographics lead you astray from their behaviors. You might fall into the trap of thinking that the young age you assigned a persona, for example, dictates a different behavior than someone older. Maybe this young person likes to write movie reviews for her friends. It doesn’t mean a 60-year-old doesn’t also write movie reviews for the New York Times. They are both members of the same movie-review writing behavioral segment. To avoid this trap, try assigning the less common (at least in your mind) demographics to your persona. This trick will remind you to focus on the behavior of the segment, not the demographics. If you think of movie-review writers as young teenage reclusive boys, then make the persona an older, affable woman with lots of expertise and a humorous writing technique.

It’s a Rotating Cast

A common misconception about these kinds of groups is that there is only one set of segments for your organization. Under this misconception, typically the segments represent the different “deciding to buy” behaviors. Instead of arguing with the group who created these marketing segments, think of it like an episodic television show with a large cast of characters. There are some characters that you use in certain scenes, and other characters that only make a few appearances. Each scene represents a different experience or touchpoint on a customer’s journey.

For an insurance company, these are some example scenes:

A. Decide what kind of insurance policy is required or right for them.

B. Experience a near-miss accident.

C. Experience an accident and immediate aftermath.

D. Decide whether to make a claim and pay the deductible.

E. Make a claim and follow it through to conclusion.

Here are some different characters for the insurance company:

1. “Let This Be a Lesson”

2. “Downplay It”

3. “Poor Accident Record”

4. “Additional Protection Seeker”

The last two characters belong to purchasing-behavior segments, so they play a part in Scene A, but not in Scenes B or C. The first two are accident-behavior segments, so they don’t show up in Scene A, and they’re the stars of Scenes B and C. Try to broaden your cast of characters so they are appropriate to differing scenes.

Inspire Ideas

The patterns from the listening sessions are a rich matrix for collaborative idea generation. The important thing now is that you don’t fall into the habit of claiming to know the solutions yourself.

Now is the time to stand upon your newly earned understanding of others. This includes your understanding of your peers’ and stakeholders’ purposes. Rather than latch on to an idea you think will support people better, latch on to your knowledge about those people and about the people you work with. Let other people lead the way, iterating through some ideas. To have any strength and hope of thriving, ideas need to be created collaboratively. Many heads are better than one, and an idea is always stronger when it gets bounced around a bit. See if the people you work with come up with the idea that was lurking at the back of your brain—make it a game—and watch if the ideas that get discussed don’t surpass that lurker anyway. The importance of letting go of ownership of ideas and ideation is that you will be able to assess the value of ideas more clearly. This is part of the empathetic mindset.

Once you embrace the importance of not holding your ideas dear, then sure, go ahead and suggest ideas along with your peers. At this point, an idea is a seed that you’re tossing out there with everyone else. It’s one of many. Your responsibility lies in cultivating the spot where the seeds land, on cultivating a fertile understanding of the people you are trying to support. Your focus is on fostering that empathetic understanding throughout your organization. If the seeds of ideas land in such a rich environment, they can’t help but sprout into much stronger seedlings than ideas that struggle in an environment where understanding is sparse or one-dimensional.

Additionally, the empathetic mindset can lessen political posturing. If two different groups have differing ideas, you can set the atmosphere by speaking neutrally, from your empathetic knowledge. Your experience of working through the listening sessions, summarizing, and observing patterns has effectively created a place in your mind full of other people’s thinking. You can focus on representing that empathy. When you open your mouth, the people’s voices come out, not your own.

Remind Yourself of Organizational Goals

As you dive into an idea-generation session, whether it’s informal in the hallway or formal in a conference room, keep in mind your organizational goals for the year. You can remind yourself of the goals silently or out loud with your colleagues. You need this quick orientation for your creative thought process so you can choose patterns that are more related to the organization’s priorities. You’ll also be able to see where people’s priorities split away, and whether that’s significant to how you are currently deploying your resources in support of them.

Start by Describing a Pattern

To begin, simply state a few of the patterns and summaries. Describing a pattern aloud sets the stage and invites collaborators to join in. You can either keep the list of patterns and summaries handy or work from memory.

If you are doing this solo, conduct a little dialogue in your head. Stare off into space, imagining the scenes from the pattern. Some people say getting away from your usual surroundings will help you concentrate on this other person’s thinking.6

First Person Pronoun “I”

The first guideline for this activity is that you should try to use the first person pronoun “I.” Using empathy means putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. When you say “he” or “she” for describing a person’s thinking, you are using your own perspective to look at that person. You inadvertently erect a barrier and put yourself on the other side to watch the other person in the scenario like a movie. There’s an extra filter in there. Using “I” tricks your mind into thinking more like the other person thinks.

When you pepper the description of a pattern with quotes from people, the use of the personal pronoun “I” truly doesn’t feel contrived. You can also get mileage out of the verbs you chose for the summaries.

No Need for Scenarios

If you have done ideation sessions before, you might have invented specific scenarios. You don’t need to write scenarios anymore. Use the actual scenes you heard in the sessions and the actual thinking, reactions, and undercurrents from the scene.

Then let your collaborators extend the scene. It only takes a few seconds of thinking per direction. Try to help the group cycle through extensions that might end in various ways that your organization could support. And don’t limit yourselves to a product or a service—explore things that might mean adjusting a process or writing new content, etc.


If you work alone, you’ll want to talk through your ideas with other people in your networks. These can be people outside of work, in professional groups, peers from previous jobs, etc. Describing an idea aloud to someone has a powerful, instantaneous clarifying effect. Describing an idea in writing to someone has a similar same effect.

Reasoning, Not Demographics

An even more important guideline for this activity is to avoid demographics entirely. Demographics are descriptors such as gender, age, income-level, health, religion, eye color, nationality, political-affiliation, and so on. To stay within an empathetic mindset, you need to concentrate on the reasoning patterns you found. Instead of talking about “people who are pre-diabetic,” talk about the different reasoning you heard: “people who reach for sugary comfort foods out of habit,” and “people who feel so busy they fall back on fast food,” and “people who eat whatever their family and friends eat,” if these happen to be your behavioral segments. This practice keeps you from making assumptions.

As another example, saying that a person belongs to a certain political group does not explain her reasoning and guiding principles. Indeed, a political label invites the assumption that this individual—and all individuals of the same demographic—align with your interpretation of some of the viewpoints of that party. Rarely do all individuals interpret a viewpoint in exactly the same way.

Assumptions are pernicious. You make them without knowing it. And they are usually wrong in at least one way. The empathetic mindset—concentrating on the deeper things you found about a person’s thinking—will help you avoid assumptions, or at least recognize when you have misstepped.

In Western culture, using demographics as shorthand for people’s thinking is widespread. You get hit with it in media, entertainment, professional presentations, and casual conversation. People make demographic statements without knowing it, or they make demographic statements as hyperbole. If you feel able, try pointing out these demographic assumptions when your collaborators mention them. When you hear someone say something like, “Prediabetics always think about sugar; they just can’t get sweets out of their minds,” it’s your cue.

Even if a certain way of reasoning forms a strong trend within a demographic, do not use the demographic label. Correlation is not causation. A demographic, such as gender, is not causing a certain way of reasoning. It’s the reasoning, not the demographic, that should influence how you decide to support people.7

Your boss might prod you to say something demographically significant about the patterns, which puts you in a delicate situation. Try to help everyone at your organization understand the empathic mindset by referring to specific people or to a reasoning-based behavioral segment instead of a demographic. Give people at your organization better words so they can wield the patterns you found without demographic assumptions (see Figure 6.5).


See if you can ask someone who just made a demographic statement to restate in terms of reasoning patterns you found.

Make Notes of the Ideas

As the ideas pile up and get prodded and molded into different shapes, take some notes so you can remember what was discussed later. Include mention of how ideas tie back to business advantages or organizational goals. Do not make anything more formal than notes. You’ve probably experienced the juggernaut that arises from formally written descriptions of ideas. The description becomes a document that either becomes too detailed to nimbly change as you rethink things, or the basic ideas get set in stone. Changes get brushed aside because it’s just too hard to keep the formal document updated.

So make notes. Give ideas temporary working titles. Keep it shorter than you would normally. Then return to each idea a day or so later and discuss it again before starting on a sketch or prototype. A little time gives you tons of perspective and creative intuition.

Test How Well You Are Empathizing

Using actors as a kind of metric, you can assess how well you’re doing with your own empathy. Actors empathize with the characters they represent. Any time you see a television show or a movie, you can recognize when an actor is good because the character is the only thing conveyed. When an actor isn’t as skilled, you notice that the actor is bringing her own reactions to all the parts she plays. More than a few television shows8 and movies have featured two characters experiencing a mind/body swap. It’s a mark of the skill of the actors that they can convincingly portray the opposite character in the scene. When you state your “I” phrases, do you sound like the other person? Or, for instance, are you showing how you reason, or showing what your opinion of a person is by the tone of your voice?

If you are bold, you can act out scenes and even film yourself. Many people are a little embarrassed to do real, out-loud acting, though. There are some great workshops on the improvisation technique (improv) that can help you get into it if you want—improv is great for boosting creativity as a group. For those of you who don’t want to act, it might feel a little immature, like a game of “pretend” that you outgrew long ago. Yet, despite all the awkward feelings, it can be a powerful way to get your mind into an empathic mode. Try it if your group is willing.

Another test of your level of empathizing is to write a screenplay, but of the inner train of thought for someone in a specific extended scene. This process of writing can help you think things through more clearly. Or write a comic strip with thought bubbles and stick figures.9 Help the reader laugh or wince with the character. You can also use these materials to assist in your communication of the ideas beyond your team.

A third way to test your level of empathizing is to purposely reach out to the scenes that feel very alien from your own experiences. If you can voice someone’s reasoning that you were previously unfamiliar with, or that you disagree with, then you are empathizing. “I don’t trust the airline to set things right, so I confront the gate agent myself. I yell at her so she will realize the magnitude of her mistake and how much she has upset me.” These might be sentiments that are very different from your own. If you are able to say them with conviction, and believe them just for the space of time that you are that character, then you are empathizing.

Check the Ideas

This is an initial trip around the Think-Make-Check cycle. Your empathy influenced your brainstorming during the Think stage. Now you’ll want to help validate the ideas by reviewing them with others. To review, you’ll need to communicate the ideas to others—“Make” the ideas take some sort of form. Your role, as representative of the people from the listening sessions, is to provide the stories that go along with the description or sketch of each idea. An idea without context is subject to misinterpretation.10 Static documentation (e.g., wireframes, mock-ups, experience maps) needs a scenario or two, along with well-defined characters from the listening sessions or personas. Dynamic communications (e.g., prototypes and interactive mock-ups) need the story and personas, too. For someone to behold its significance, you need to point out a few paths through the interaction. Use the voices you have collected to tell these stories. Once you have made something of your idea that others can understand, then you can “Check” it with them.

As a final test of an idea before investing any resources in it, create a parallel version of the story where your idea does not exist, but the characters still achieve their intent. This parallel version is a great way to clarify your story and single out which thinking and reactions you are trying to support in particular.

What About Ideas Already Underway?

What if some patterns cause you to realize something needs to change in the way you already support people? It’s completely reasonable to reshape ideas already in discussion, development, or use—it just might take your skill and dedication to persuade people that it will make a positive difference (see Chapter 7). If you’ve done the work it takes to forge a collaborative environment, then this task will be easier.

On the other hand, you might encounter someone in leadership who has a special interest in going a particular direction she has envisioned. But, based on your deep understanding of the people’s reasoning, you see a flaw in her plan. Try a little experiment by stepping through an extended scene of this leader’s vision, expressing the character’s thoughts aloud. You can test if the idea either won’t help any of the characters effectively or will frustrate them. Or you might surprise yourself and discover that your initial misgivings don’t really play out, and the leader’s idea is sound.

In the former case, you can then ask to have a discussion with the decision-maker or her direct reports. You can demonstrate how your leader’s plan might go awry, not by expressing your opinion, but by running through the extended scene with the voices of people from your listening sessions. This kind of discussion, without opinions, usually results in progress.

Of course, some leaders believe so fervently in their idea that they perceive a request to have a meeting as an attack on the energy which they need to breathe life into their idea. They’re already staying up late, and working when everyone else is taking a break. Listen to them, step into their shoes, feel their energy and thinking. Show them you are interested. Eventually, you will be able to collaborate.

Solve for More

The assumption is that when you find a pattern across people, the pattern is something that everyone might like support with. The opposite could be true: one set of individuals may have a pattern that requires completely different support than another group’s pattern. For example, one pattern might depict people wanting time and space to solve a problem, whereas another pattern might show the need for frequent conversation and updates while solving a problem. Clearly, you will want to support each pattern differently.

When an organization takes the time, it can really sharpen its tactics for supporting people this way. By defining the most prevalent or profitable patterns, it can spotlight whom it wants to support. It can follow a tighter path to development, rollout, and maintenance of an idea. It can put in exactly the right amount of effort toward exactly the right audience for this particular timeframe.

Most of the ways you solve things stem from your own perspective. This is axiomatic, because you’re the one doing the solving. So you make an effort to bring other people’s perspectives to bear. The problem is, there’s an awful lot of pressure out there to hurry up and make something. It’s not like you can push back on everyone at the organization. So push back on yourself first. As you are making decisions about the things you make, try this trick. Just like reporters are supposed to cite three sources for a fact, and like homeowners are supposed to get three estimates for repair work, run your brain through three different perspectives (see Figure 6.6). You can do this in a matter of a few minutes. The three perspectives can be from similar behavioral groups or from dissimilar ones. Running through three other perspectives helps you make adjustments to your ideas so that they are even stronger. You don’t want people at your organization to fall into the trap of laying out something for themselves, because they, themselves, are not the target behavioral segment.


Take a few minutes to run through at least three other people’s perspectives as you polish your idea.

Explore Varied Combinations

Humans are diverse. No one approach of yours will work for every-one—that’s a given. What you make might need to be split into a couple of different solutions, suited to different behavior patterns. Or different paths through one solution might be appropriate. Written content, a service, a product, policy, or a process can each be split into different instances. Without studying the possible angles, your organization runs the risk of making something that either unconsciously fits one reasoning pattern or fits none of the reasoning patterns well.

You can’t make 100 permutations of a similar service. But you can make two versions. Or three. This does not mean doubling or tripling your effort, because your offering works the same way under the hood. It’s the way a person accesses your offering that changes from version to version. The wording and tone might change. Emphasis might change. While this does take a lot of work, it certainly doesn’t take twice as much work.

Look for Enduring Directions

There is an argument for making your offerings sustainable—things that are extensible, that you don’t toss aside, but instead keep for a long time. Take a look at the buzzwords that are still in use, such as “new,” “brand new,” and “new and improved.” Organizations reissue the same basic offering with small tweaks to guarantee continued purchases, profits, and patents. You might even suspect companies of purposely bloating your phone, slowing it down, in an attempt to make you upgrade. With the empathy you developed for customers, you might be able to help your organization sustain profits not through purchase and repurchase, but through attracting people away from the competition with well-thought-out details or with ideas that support subsets of your audience more closely. Or by reusing existing components in more powerful, creative, or personal ways. (Do this internally, too, because you don’t want your organization to be an instance of the cobbler’s children having no shoes.)

Choose Your Audience Carefully

When you are working out solutions, you may end up having a discussion about an important question, “How much do we care about this subgroup?” For example, the group in question may have never encountered your organization before and will never encounter it again, so there’s no long-term relationship. Should you purposely ignore these one-encounter kinds of people? What percentage of your overall metrics are they? It may be hard to let go of an audience which is a favorite, but which isn’t a good direction for your organization at the moment. Nonetheless, this discussion is helpful. Be honest and open with yourselves. How many organizations have crumpled because of just this simple reluctance to be clear about whom they are supporting?

You don’t have to stop development or give up on a great idea just because the answers to these questions mean the people you are supporting are a minority. If that is whom you really want to support, and it makes sense from a commitment point of view for your organization, then great! You’ve just taken the first step toward more streamlined tactics. The admission that you’re not focused on the other audiences gives you permission to focus better on the first group.

A big assumption is in operation: convincing someone to decide to buy is the key goal. For services that are free, advertising other things for sale or getting a cut of the transaction is what provides the revenue stream.11 This big assumption has filtered into Western culture: aggregate groups are largely referred to as consumers, mythically using every moment of their days to make purchases. Perhaps you can find ways to branch out beyond consumerism.

Solve More Than Surface-Level Problems

If your organization evaluates how well your offerings support people, especially on a recurring basis, you probably have a lot of data that has guided the changes you have made. These data generally trend up, pointing in an encouraging direction. The people you support seem pretty happy with the offering. But these measurements miss the fact that it is second nature for humans to make adjustments—in other words, to make do with situations and tools that are less than perfect. Humans adapt. So the metrics only show humans making your offering work, or making work-arounds to allow the offering space in their lives.

The error probably lies in defining scenarios that are too pat. Human reasoning is complex and easily interconnects across different systems, constructs, and people. People are governed by biology. People also take different paths to arrive at your offering. Don’t assume everyone arrived for the same reason or using the same decisions. Try for actual scenarios from the people you heard from. Represent interwoven ecosystems. Extend these scenarios with edge cases that might be common. Then try to solve each one of them holistically, rather than in discrete steps.

Example: Sending Your Nephew a Belated Birthday Card

In the “Jelly Bean” version of Android, there is a widget called “Weather” that you can put on your home screen. The widget also shows the time and date, and it shows a little birthday cake if someone in your contact list has a birthday that day. Presumably, the engineers expected you would be able to remember whose birthday it was, as the cake icon does not include the name of the person celebrating.

If you have lots of people in your contact list, and you don’t remember whose birthday the icon represents, you must open up a separate calendar application to find out. It turns out that it’s your nephew’s birthday, so you decide to send a belated paper card to him, so you can include a little gift. You get out a card, write a little note, and realize you need to look up his address. The birthday notation in the calendar does not have a link back to the contact. You have to use a third application, your contact list, to look up the home address to write on the envelope. None of these apps link the birthday directly to any of the other data.

This scenario is a clear example of how the people creating the apps did not think things through from a perspective different than their own, where they know whose birthday it is.

Keep in Mind Whom You Are Addressing

Inevitably, you’ll find yourself in a scenario where someone makes a blanket statement like, “Everyone searches by keyword. So let’s treat email that way.” This is your opportunity to ask, “Who is everyone, exactly? Who benefits?” Help the people around you to make a decision with their eyes wide open. You can delineate exactly which part of the audience you want to address, when, and why.


Let these words be red flags of warning when you hear them in your own conference room.

Everyone does it.

• It’s easier to do it this way.

• It’s better to do it this way.

Especially in writing, but also in policies, services, and products, what you create can so easily rub a person the wrong way. The way you word things or the categories and definitions you create about the people you support—these have the potential to be off-putting. Moreover, the lack of attention to a certain subtype of person can make those people have emotional reactions. Maybe they’re not turning away from your organization, but don’t count that as a success. It might simply be that “there’s no other option.”

For example, an eBay member might be active in bursts. During one of her inactive periods, she happens to move from one city to another. Her landline and email have both changed, and she did not register a mobile number with her account. The password reset function at eBay depends upon one of these things staying constant (see Figure 6.7). The organization either didn’t think about this particular situation or decided it wasn’t important enough to address directly. The next steps make the member feel ignored, anxious, and overwhelmed—none of which are emotions eBay wants to foster in its members.

The addition of text acknowledging this situation goes a long way toward supporting the member and not causing these emotions. “None of these contact methods up-to-date anymore? Please call this number.” Don’t send this member to a generic page with “contact customer support,” where the text implies that her safety and security are at risk. Moreover, don’t accuse the member of “having trouble,” or indicate that she might “need more help.” These phrases imply the member is not smart enough to do what she wants to do. Phrases like “Password reset not working?” and “How can we support you?” imply the fault is with the service, not the member, which is what you want. Take the blame for the problem so that you don’t cause negative emotions and reactions.


If you’ve moved and have a new email address and phone number, this password-reset page from eBay only fills you with dread about long hold-times on the customer support line, or worse, losing your history and standing if you have to set up a new account.

Solve for the End Customer

Plenty of organizations make things for a company who then uses that solution to serve their customers. These organizations have begun experimenting with a focus on the end customers, in addition to the people who directly acquire their offering. This means finding out more about the patterns of behavior in these end customers—a step that is sometimes met with fear by the direct customer that the organization is bypassing them. Sometimes, the situation requires working together with the direct customer to understand the end customer better. You should help everyone involved to identify and separate the different behavioral audiences you are addressing.

Practice These Skills

Making use of the knowledge you’ve collected requires actually dwelling on that knowledge for a bit. Making this a separate step from your brainstorming session can be helpful. It may seem like it would bloat the whole process you follow, but it only takes 15 minutes.

Practice: Design-less Design Session

A good practice to fall into is to begin any design work with a “pre-session” where you simply discuss the people and scenes that relate to the idea you are exploring. It can be a short session. During this discussion of the people you’ve heard from, refrain completely from sketching solutions or details of a design component. You may sketch scenarios and flow or journeys that a person may take to achieve her purpose. Remain solution agnostic during this “pre-session.”


To create something, you benefit from understanding the patterns of how various people reason. There will be differences and similarities that you can form into behavioral groups. Maybe you are not directly responsible for coming up with new ideas for your organization or maybe you are. But no matter what, you’re not in it alone. Creating new ideas and shaping them requires other minds to help influence your thinking. As the person who is the skilled listener—the person who represents the patterns you discovered across the people you hope to support—you are perfectly positioned to facilitate this collaboration.

Understand where the team members are coming from and help each person feel confident coming up with concepts. Support each person with stories from your empathy work. Maintain team cooperation by showing people how to let go of ownership of their idea and embrace the next person’s modification.



Quick Method: Seek patterns by memory.

Rich Method: Look for patterns across summaries.

• Consider one summary at a time.

• Wrap your mind around the difficult ones.

• Assess your confidence.



• Group people with similar patterns of reasoning.

• Behavioral segments first, and then maybe personas.

• It’s a rotating cast.



• Remind yourself of organizational goals.

• Start by describing a pattern.

• First-person pronoun “I.”

• No need for scenarios.

• Reasoning, not demographics.

• Make notes of the ideas.

• Test how well you are empathizing.



• Explore varied combinations.

• Look for enduring directions.

• Keep in mind whom you are addressing.

• Solve for the end customer.


When your boss gives you a request, find out the deeper purpose of what he means.