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Design products with empathy

Updated: Apr 17, 2021

Evolution of online user journeys

In the early days of the internet, websites were designed with minimal user input. With users themselves not knowing what they wanted to see on the screen, and with design principles evolving rapidly for this new medium there was a constant conflict on how information should be structured and presented. How much information should be put within a page and how many clicks should it take to complete a user journey.

The traditional media houses setup e-commerce design teams who were able to plug the design and interaction gap. Companies wanted to create an online web presence showcasing the company profile and products. There were few instances of transactional commerce sites and this had to do with the technology, security, trust and internet speeds - which was primarily dial up and low bandwidth broadband. Banking and financial institutions were one of the first to explore this new channel and invested heavily to introduce self-directed / internet banking and online stock broking services to their customers.

Product managers struggled to balance out what the optimum level of content should be and many of the early websites evolved by squeezing in additional buttons, links and text just to get the job done, rather than a complete UX review. The approach was lets just put it all onto the screen and that way the user cant say into not there. Besides if there was any user centric design standards it could only be afforded by the big companies. Companies who delivered the first online platforms and online customer journeys set the design benchmarks, competitor sites often looked similar and introducing new user journeys were faced with resistance as users were already trained up by the first mover.

The accepted practice was that the product manager should design the steps that need to be taken by the user on the screen and the user would just have to fall into line and adopt the prescribed user journey. The typical measurement used was - the speed of loading a webpage on a 56K modem and how many clicks to complete a specific user journey and time taken to read all the information on the screen.

Websites used to have user guides and detailed FAQs covering the various functions. Bigger companies used to have in person classroom training sessions for their customers to learn how to use their websites. There were lucky draws, promotions and even rebates thrown in to get customers to switch to online.

From a platform support perspective life was much easier for a product manager as the only channel of access was a personal computer running windows, with one of two browsers. I personally recount that all I needed to do was to make sure the platform worked on Netscape and Internet Explorer. If the website worked on these browsers you had the comfort that your job was done. There wasn't much of business a need or commercial justification to make sure Mac users could access the service. Yes the Mac had less than 3% market share in the year 2000.

The rush to having an online presence was led by FOMO and also secure the domain name which would allow the company to protect their brand, reducing the chance of fraudulent sites popping up and giving them the option to have the domain at a much lower cost, rather than buying it from a domain name speculator at a much higher cost. Commerce was still driven through physical sales and distribution networks - the bricks and mortar business. Products continued to be sold through physical locations with few companies providing a full online service.

Early entrants into online commerce were companies like Dell as they were competing against the established players and needed a way to lower costs and reduce inventory. It was a novel idea to hear you bought the computer online. One of the first online market places which leveraged the internet was Amazon, which used data, customer preferences to bring personalised shopping experiences bringing thousands of smaller merchants to sell online through the marketplace.

Building delightful online user experiences

The birth of online transactional e-commerce is attributed to card acceptance over the internet and PayPal. This changed the entire game, mail order volumes dropped along with the card not present transactions. The ability to validate and debit a card instantly gave rise to the growth of online services e.g. in tourism and hospitality. Many of you would recall the numerous travel agencies all over town, now most of the bookings are done through the internet.

Commerce has always been about selling more and keeping customers happy. When customers come into the physical store the shopping experience and the ability to touch and feel the product before the sale is made, or even having a delightful conversation with the sales person drives the decision to purchase. So it should seem logical that if the physical store has been replaced by an App then that App needs to similarly wrap the customer with a blanket of affection, care and trust. This is where understanding the end user, empathising with their situation and then translating into good product design with simple, intuitive, connected and immersive user experiences will drive customer acquisition, sales and growth of e-commerce.

  • Badly designed websites and Apps are turn offs, there is always a better designed platform for the user to go through.

  • Customer loyalty is no longer linked to a human, it is now based on experiences through digital interaction.

  • Digital has created a level playing field where a startup can now play challenger to established players as they are able to craft out their proposition in a more user centric way using the latest design, agility and technology

Companies are at times guilty of reskinning their applications to give customers the illusion of a new platform. Fundamentally the user journey is the same and the old design flaws remain this is akin to putting lipstick on a pig which in the end leaves you with just a pig, eventually the lipstick comes off.

Design by putting yourself in the customers shoes

Customers make a purchase decision through a process of being informed, weighing the pros-cons, shortlisting and then deciding on the purchase. The shopping cart work flow involves search, view, select, confirm and pay. User experience improvements have focused on improving the searching, retrieval, presentation and providing choices. Data from the users profile, historic searches and social media are often used to present a suggested list of items, and highlighting bargains to bring customer delight, certainty of the inventory being on hand with an assured delivery date (think This is the same as the sales person at the store who is going to tell you that your order is good and it will be delivered as promised.

Customers want the confidence of checking out with a firm belief that they are going to get delivery of the product as how it was represented in the online shop front.

There are emotionally driven customers too and the acquisition of some products is driven by a strong desire of physical possession which driven by the aesthetics, user experience and the perception conveyed in the products design.

Think of Apple in this case they are the only computer company in the world which still has a vast physical online presence where customers can get fully immersed into the apple experience before buying. It is also a brand where user experiences are at the front and centre of everything they do from the hardware, software, packaging, sales and customer service. The tightly built Apple EcoSystem simply works. Apple has figured out the a majority of customers just want to open the box and get started and not read an instruction manual and deal with a whole bunch of settings to get their devices working.

The elimination of all points of friction in the user experience brings a user delight which no other competitor can offer. Its simple, it just works and customers are happy to pay a premium for the quality and eco-system that they are buying into. It's no wonder that every new iPhone launch has queues on the launch day and the hype around the release extends for months with people eagerly waiting to upgrade to the latest devices. Apple is a perfect case study for product managers and product designers to look at if they want to see a customer centric organisation which designs products based on taking an empathic view in everything that they build.

Digital is here, think future forward

So what is digital?

Digital should be all about freedom of choices, transparency and immersive user experiences. If one of these are compromised in the product design then expect to see lower user acceptance.

Customers do not want to be held hostage, there are apps which try and trap users by not allowing them to proceed or preview the app without a credit card. Customers want the ability to track and trace whats happening to their purchase. They want the assurance there is access to someone on the other side if they wanted to cancel or change their order. The UX design needs to bring this confidence and trust to the user. This should encourage product managers to think more about User Experience Design and to take it seriously. Customers now just have to delete the app if they find it cumbersome to use. The product organisation now need to step back and fundamentally re-conceive how they create value for their customers.

Company executives in the dinosaur organisations need to be educated on the importance of embedding user experience at the core of the platform / product design. They just don't get it, they want to sound like they know it but they don't get what it means to back this up and to empower the teams to execute. A UX journey is not a one time design, it needs to evolve with the maturity of the product, technology, customer demographics and user preferences.

The unicorns set the standard for user delight on mobile, the likes of Uber, AirBnB paved the way for immersive user journeys putting the user at the centre. Once the user came to know what the art of the possible was- a slick and intuitive user experiences the bar was set. Every other app needed to measure up and show that they understood their customers.

The Product manager can't ignore UX and needs to mandate that the UX sits right at the very centre of the product design. Immersive UX also has a knock on impact to the back end and down stream systems, this is critical and should be scoped in as part of the development cycle.

Design for the past, present and future

The product (the app, website) is the company brand in the e-commerce eco-system and how users perceive it and interact with the application needs to be similar across platforms and devices. Think of the consistency of the Google search experience on web, mobile, tablet, smart tv, smart watch. The UX needs to be responsive and should ideally be built natively for each operating system to give users the best experience using a consistent design language.

There are billions of devices out there and from all generations. When we build for Digital we must build for inclusiveness of every demographic and society.

Everyone has the right to access the services and as such we as product managers commit our best to accommodate as many devices and operating system vApps need to be inclusive taking into account aspects such as accessibility, equity, diversity, representation across communities. Solving design problems faced by the minority often leads to greater accessibility benefits for the entire community.

Everyday there are more first time users coming online, the next one billion users are at the door step - how will you serve them? This is no easy task and it requires a deep understanding of the target user base. Look at the needs of generation Z and the alphas', it is very different from generation X and Y. The role of a product manager and a product designer are very inter-twinned and together they can drive great outcomes for the user and the business, their combined vision and representation of users will allow the product to thrive in this crowded digital world.

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