Customer Empathy Sessions: A tool for better understanding your users

If you’re a designer, engineer, or product manager building software today, you likely interact with users a lot. You probably run interviews with your customers to identify their wants and needs. You probably collect and analyze qualitative and quantitative user feedback on your product. And you probably conduct usability sessions in order to build useful, usable, and delightful software.

We do these things (and more) at HubSpot. The user sits at the heart of how we build our products. And yet, we weren’t always getting things right — even the easy things. 

Why we need our team to feel our customers pain

With a product that spans a full suite of marketing, sales, and customer service tools, and a product team in the hundreds, it’s sometimes difficult to catch every rough edge in our user experience. Sometimes our engineering team would miss silly bugs before a product went out into production. Sometimes the place one team's app connects to another team's app didn’t quite have the smoothest user experience. We realized that while we interacted with customers often, our interviews and research sessions were usually centered on a specific topic, like a new feature. When our engineers QA tested a certain feature before releasing it, they sometimes missed certain edge cases when they didn’t use it the way our customers do on a daily basis. In short, our team’s deep expertise in the tools sometimes led to blind spots — places we didn’t realize were rough edges because we just weren’t seeing the software as our users (especially our less experienced users) do.

And so we went to the drawing board. How we could get our team closer to the everyday workflows that our users took in our tools? How could we see our product the way our users do; not just the pieces of the puzzle we were currently working on, but the complete picture? How could we use our product for real?

To solve this problem, we developed a method we called a customer empathy session. These sessions are a simple way to help your team spot small bugs or user experience splinters your customers see every day. Below, we’ll outline how to run your own customer empathy session, and give you some templates and tools that will make it easy to try it with your own team.

What is a customer empathy session?

At its simplest, a customer empathy session involves having a product team take a specific part of their app and try to use it like a customer would. We often set up these meetings over lunch to make sure that the largest number of people can attend. We then give the group a few tasks to complete and a customer persona and scenario to embody for the duration of the session.

We invite everyone to these sessions. Researchers, engineers, product experts (our support counterparts), content writers, product managers, technical leads, product designers and data analysts are all included and all complete the same tasks.

How to prepare

First, you need an agenda. While customer empathy sessions are less formal than usability tests, it pays to do your legwork ahead of time and be prepared. In our case, we ran mock sessions to ensure that we got the timing correct before we brought everyone into the room. We time-boxed each task and made sure everyone moved on to the next one even if they weren’t quite done with the previous one.

We also created a collaborative document for taking notes. We sent that doc out to the whole team, and asked everyone to fill it out as they noticed things during the session. We broke the doc down in to the structure of the session, which made it easier for people to find their place and easier for us to analyze the results afterwards. We also asked everyone to take a screen recording of anything off they noticed as part of this process where they could. This resulted in crystal-clear documentation for bugs and UX issues after the session.

While ordering treats is optional, sharing cookies or ice cream with your colleagues is a great way to start the session out on a happy note. While the point of the exercise is to personally experience the pain points our customers feel when using our tools, this should be a positive exercise — it’s a time to get the team together and everyone’s thoughts and opinions down on paper.

Finally (and most importantly), you should do everything you can to stay as close to your users’ experience as possible. After some trial and error, we’ve found a few methods that work quite well:

Give everyone a persona and scenario to embody for the duration of the session

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In our latest empathy session, we wanted to test an on-boarding experience in our new email drag-and-drop editor, so we wrote up a persona and scenario that aligned with the experience of a novice user. 

We called our persona James. James is brand new to using HubSpot, but he’s heard great things about it. He’s found an email template online that he really likes, and he wants to try to recreate it in HubSpot, but update it a little to match his brand. We chose this scenario because it’s something that we hear constantly from our customers — they look online for email inspiration, find an email they like, and use it for inspiration in their own email marketing. We gave each participant a template we’d found online, and asked everyone to try to recreate their template in the email editor. 

Everyone had 20 minutes to build their email template. That’s certainly a tight deadline, but building out templates to pixel-perfection under a tight deadline is something our email users have to do every day. By working with these constraints, every member of the team was able to empathize with our users a little bit more. 

Add realistic restrictions

Our product team is used to working on and seeing the product on large Thunderbolt or retina displays — but that’s not typical of our users’ experience using the tools. 

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In order to work under the most realistic conditions, we pulled data on the average window heights of our email users. The majority of our users had window heights of 938, but there were a lot of users with a height of 626 or 657 — in other words, quite small. To really step into our users’ shoes, each participant was assigned a window height that they weren’t allowed to adjust for the duration of the session. 

Though the email tool doesn’t receive very high usage on the iPad, we’ve heard from our customers of certain cases where an email marketer needs to get an email out, but might only have access to their iPad. So, we asked some participants to use iPads for the whole session.

Include tasks that use external tools

As much as we’d like to believe that our customers can use HubSpot for the entirety of their work, the truth is that they actually use a huge number of external tools to get their jobs done. Through monitoring customer sends, we know that our users need to leave the email app quite a lot to get the content that they want to include.

The following example shows 4 different customer emails using our editor with Google map images linking to their office locations:

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James would need to jump through quite a few hoops in order to do this: from the editor, he’d need to open a new tab, navigate to Google maps, search for his company address, screenshot the Google map image of his company’s location, go back into HubSpot’s email editor, drag in an image module, upload the Google map screenshot, go back into Google maps to retrieve the URL for that location on the map, go back into the email editor, and paste in the URL in order to hyperlink the image.

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Whew!

That’s just one example of a case where our users need to leave the app to get the content that they need. We wanted all participants of our empathy session to really get a feel for this type of flow, so everyone was assigned an additional task that they had to complete during the session. Each of these tasks are common tasks that users perform every day outside of HubSpot’s email tool. Adding these tasks to the scenarios gave us a much more realistic idea of how our customers use the product — jumping from tab to tab, trying to find the information they need, and dragging it back into HubSpot. These tasks gave us all the chance to empathize with our users further.

The results

After running a few of these sessions, we were able to document a huge number of bugs and usability issues in a really short amount of time. This meant we were able to fix these issues before we user tested our new flows, and before they were released to customers. 

But more importantly, these sessions let everyone on our team better understand our users, and their workflows and struggles. As one of our Engineers commented: 

“I normally just use the product to work on specific features in silo, but these empathy sessions make me use HubSpot as a customer. That helps me to see the bigger picture a lot better."

In summary, to make sure you get you really get your whole team to feel customers pain, you should:

  • Get everyone in the room together
  • Make sure you're prepared well in advance so you don’t misuse your teammates' time
  • Use scenarios to really embody the persona
  • Get people to do specific tasks 
  • Make sure the tasks are realistic of what customers see and do, including where they're located and what device they're using
  • Think outside of the journey — where customers go next and what they do after they leave your product
  • Food always helps!

If you're interested in running your own customer empathy session, we invite you to use any of the templates we’ve created below. We’ve found that these sessions are most valuable before a release or before user tests, but they’re also valuable for finding bugs and usability issues you might not be aware of in existing software. We hope these sessions give you one more strategy to get closer to your customers and continue to erase your blind spots. 

Feedback template

Agenda template

Scenario template

Gráinne Smith

Written by Gráinne Smith

Gráinne is a product designer at HubSpot.

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