Empathetic Product Discovery for Hackers

Hackers tend to look inward. It's only natural: we spend our days thinking about intricate, abstract pieces of code. In order to focus on these concepts, your mind has to do away with distractions. You have to buckle down and think about the problem as it relates to your perspective, and how you're going to solve it. Notice the word you shows up a lot.

But if you're a hacker that wants to brainstorm the next big consumer product idea, an inward-facing thought process is exactly what you don't want. It can lead to products that:

  1. Are built only for yourself, and thus, never really delivers value to real users.
  2. Miss out on a significant market because you discounted it entirely.

The root problem is a lack of empathy. Without the ability to empathize with potential users, there's little chance that you'll discover the right product.

Empathy is defined as "the capacity to recognize and, to some extent, share feelings that are being experienced by another semi-sentient being." So, empathetic product discovery is simply learning through other people's experiences in order to discover potential solutions to their problems.

It's Stupid

Too often, I see hackers dismiss phenomena that occur outside of their world, like in popular culture or world news. A lot of times, they'll say "it's stupid." They feel like they're above it.

This is foolish. When a lot of people suddenly give attention to something, that's usually the sign of an opportunity.

The question you need to ask yourself is: why is this important to people?

If I had dismissed the whole Gap logo redesign debacle, I wouldn't have come up with Make Your Own Gap Logo. Nor would I have seen the opportunity with Did My Zodiac Change. These two projects may be small (and trite), but they're examples that highlight how important it is to keep your ear to the ground.

Putting Yourself in Their World

By now, it's cliché in the hacker-turned-product-guru community to talk about "putting yourself in someone else's shoes". I want to take this a step further and say that you need not be afraid to put yourself in someone else's world. Furthermore, you should be seeking out opportunities to get an inside view from the people around you.

This means that the next time your little cousin talks about his favorite video games, you should listen to him for once. What kinds of games does he like? Why does he like it?

The same goes for your girlfriend. When she starts to talk about Sex and the City, ask her why it's such a phenomenon, and why she identifies with the show.

You'll be surprised at what you'll learn.

Take life as one big opportunity to learn about other people's thoughts and desires. Innovative product builders are always listening and analyzing the world around them. This is the key to anticipating business opportunities.

Problems = Ideas

Most good ideas come from people's problems.

Ideally, you would have potential customers line up and have leisurely discussions with you about how they use the web, and what problems they're having. But these days, it's relatively easy to do this research without leaving your living room.

For example, are you planning on building a photo sharing app? Take a look at how people are currently sharing their photos on Twitter, Facebook, and other sites. Start identifying patterns and problem points. Specifically, look for users who are complaining about specific issues, or are trying to jury-rig a complicated solution to a problem using tools that aren't quite doing the job. This is usually a sign of an opportunity.

For QuietWrite, I was inspired by the growing movement against cluttered interfaces. I also looked at products like WriteRoom and Ommwriter, and how they were able to strike a nerve with productivity oriented users. But I also noticed that these products were all offline — so QuietWrite was born out of the convenience of having your data in the cloud combined with an interface for minimalists.

Don't Cover Your Ears!

To summarize, the big points behind empathetic product discovery are:

  • Don't cover your ears! This is especially true when you're talking to people who are very unlike yourself. Try to understand their point of view.
  • Research the pain points people are having. A lot of data is already in the social web.
  • Find patterns of complaining and jury-rigging tools to uncover potential product ideas.

Did you like this post? If so, you might be interested in reading How My Gap Logo App Became Viral and Zodiac Hacking: An Accidental SEO Experiment.

Posted on 08 Feb 2011

James Yu is the co-founder of Parse, lives in San Francisco, and likes to accidentally the whole stack.