Use these empathy techniques to make stuff your readers want

Use these empathy techniques to make stuff your readers want

As publishers, we’re all striving for the next bestseller, the big word of mouth success, the must-read title. But, being told to “make the stuff your readers want” is an obvious – and unhelpful – thing to say. Who would want the opposite?

To design books, apps and related products that people will buy, love and recommend, we need to understand customers’ needs. Market research techniques are well established and many publishers interrogate data to make decisions, but it's easy to skim through reports and numbers without trying to look for what you don't know, rather than what you do. This is where user research can add value, working with smaller sample sizes to understand specific behaviours, needs and motivations.

One way to do this involved practising empathy. I don’t mean that we should sit around and imagine what it’s like to be someone else, otherwise, we’ll end up in a scene from Mad Men with a bunch of middle aged, middle class, white men discussing what women want. So far, so patriarchal.

Instead, you need to get close to your customers; listen and learn from their direct experience. One of my favourite techniques for this is empathy maps. They’re like user research on steroids.

An empathy map is divided into sections:

  • Think and feel: What really matters to her? What occupies her thinking? What worries and aspirations might she have?
  • See: What things in her environment influence her? What does she see friends, family, colleagues, and people around her do?
  • Hear: What are friends, family, colleagues and other people saying that impacts her thinking?
  • Say and do: What kind of attitude does she have? What does she talk about? What does she do in her spare time? What does her day look like?
  • Pain: What fears, frustrations or obstacles is she facing?
  • Gains: What is she hoping to get? What does success look like?

It’s very easy to start using this technique as there’s no special training involved; unlike for example, doing user interviews.

First, get a copy of the map – you can find images on Google – and draw or print it as large as you can, ideally A1 size. The next step is to populate the sections. Yes, you can make a guess about what people might say, but you’ll risk channelling those Mad Men again. Try to use real user insights wherever possible.

Rather than write directly on the map, write on post-it notes and stick them in the sections. This is particularly helpful as you may want to move answers around, and cluster them into themes, especially if there are several people working on a map together. It will end up looking something like this:

At Emerald Publishing I’ve used several different ways to get users involved, not only to fill the maps, but to create understanding and build empathy within the organisation. Here’s three things we’ve tried.

First, at the annual strategic conference, we invited two ‘users’ to present to the assembled senior managers. We’re an academic publisher so our users were a librarian (customer) and an early career researcher (author / reader). As they talked about their typical day and shared their frustrations, needs and wants, the managers made notes in the first person.

After the presentations, we organised the managers into small groups and handed out empathy maps. Then they wrote their insights on to post-it notes and stuck them on the sections of the empathy map, creating one map for the librarian and another for the researcher.

We used the final outputs to run a design sprint and rapidly prototype solutions for the top needs. However, the value of the exercise wasn’t about building products, but getting managers, many of whom do not meet customers or users, to hear from them first hand and start to understand their real needs. In other words, to practise empathy.

In a second example we got colleagues across the business to create maps. We divided the organisation into typical job roles such as ‘publisher’, ‘director’, ‘developer’ and ‘sales’. We invited small numbers of people from each role to create an empathy map based on their own experiences.

By hearing directly from staff, we could understand their needs unmediated and then create messages that would resonate with them. After all, what concerns a director would be very different from a developer’s pains and gains – each deserves to be understood and appreciated for those differences.

A third and final example was just last week when a colleague and I delivered an ‘innovation in action’ workshop to undergraduate students at Leeds Business School. I absolutely love working with our end users, and running a workshop is a great way to gather user insights, whilst also sharing some of our expertise. It’s an example of give and take where both sides benefit.

After we spoke about how Emerald Publishing does innovation, we took students through a creative problem solving workshop. We organised the students into small groups, gave them an empathy map, and let them populate it with their post-it notes.

The next stage was for them to prioritise the top problem facing students, then create solutions which they pitched to each other. After each group delivered a one-minute pitch everyone voted for the best idea.

This is an incredibly powerful way to get close to your end users – the people who will read and buy your books and articles. I would have never been able to ‘guess’ what problems they faced, let alone create solutions for them.

The students’ biggest problems included: social isolation, negative social media, time management, writing a dissertation that made the most of their learning, getting lecturers to understand their needs and deliver better lectures, and making the most of opportunities in school to build skills, relationships and find career fulfilment.

The winning idea was… beer pods! This timed device dispensed beer to reward groups of students for revision, and involved a pop-up parent reminding them to stay on task and not drink too much, all within the safety of a sound-proofed learning pod.

Booze aside, I was surprised and humbled by what they talked about. They grappled with big problems and worked collaboratively to solve them. It renewed my respect for students and helped me to understand the challenges they face. Back in the office I can be the voice of the students, and share their needs with colleagues, so others can start to empathise.

By having a deeper understanding of who we publish for, we can make better informed publishing decisions. And, it might help us make stuff that people want to buy, read and recommend.