Monitoring the online customer experience, by Mark Hurst.
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Empathy and Experience

Thursday, May 4, 2000
by Mark Hurst

We recently discussed the difference between information architecture and customer experience; I suggested that empathy is one main difference, and some discussion ensued (see April 6).

Commenting on the use of the word "empathy," a reader recently e-mailed this:

I must say, the idea of "empathy" seems out of place within this [Internet] business context. Maybe it depends on who the audience is, but since I primarily analyze e-commerce sites, I sometimes wonder why we're all so worked up about making them more usable. So that people who have the luxury of shopping online can do so without ANY hassle? Oh my, the inconvenience of being inconvenienced when trying to spend money. So corporations can have easy to use sites that people want to return to (turn lookers into buyers into repeat customers = BIG BUCKS for THEM). Geeyod.

And then of course, I'm mobbed with industry newsletters and articles decrying "the user experience, the user experience" without anyone actually even knowing what it looks like (making my user advocacy job marketable), and I think to myself WHO CARES? The "user" looks to be doing just fine to me, especially if you check out the average income of the online shopper.

Anyway, the point of this rant is only to say that when words like empathy get thrown in alongside industry jargon, I get a little queasy. Maybe we should reserve some words for reference to the people who actually need them, like "the poor" (who merit nary a mention in this gilded industry), instead of the "user."

I found this note so provocative that I had to think for awhile before responding. Certainly the note is a rant, dashed off in a moment of haste -- but it also casts the customer experience in a rare light. After all, what is the goal of customer experience work, on most e-commerce sites, but to remove the obstacles of the buying process? We're not exactly ending world hunger.

So on the one hand, I agree -- it's true that there is greater empathy in the world than simply caring for the customer to have a painless buying process.

On the other hand, I do feel a stronger calling in my work than simply making clients more money (though we do plenty of that). Below I've listed five reasons I think there is something more to my work, maybe even some true empathy, than a simple profit motive. (First, a disclaimer: These are my own personal views and beliefs, informed and biased by my experience at Creative Good. Apologies if this is too much my own rant, and not enough the hard-hitting industry analysis usually served up here (ha). But I welcome readers to share their thoughts about how their companies relate to these ideas.)

So, my five reasons for believing in something more -- maybe even empathy -- about working for a good customer experience online:

- The Net allows for some important human interactions to occur for the first time ever. People connect with people -- perhaps company to customer, perhaps customer to customer -- in meaningful, helpful ways. One of our clients helps customers connect and help each other in new ways. The importance of these interactions is not diminished just because the client profits from them; neither is my company's work diminished just because we help the client make more money by improving the experience. I'm primarily interested in helping the customers have the meaningful interaction.

- How my company's team members work with each other, and with our clients, and with the Web customers we interview, does mean something in the world. Whether we're consulting on websites or sewing shirts in a garment shop, our process -- the way we work -- has some inherent importance.

- And it just so happens that trying to work in the right way actually helps what we do. Doing customer experience work in a posture of empathy -- as true an empathy as we can manage -- is by far the most effective way to do our work. Actually empathizing with the customer (not just talking about it) virtually guarantees some level of quality in our end product.

- We're conscientious about the work we do and the work we don't do. We're willing to walk away from profitable work, if the project would require us to breach our integrity or our (yes) empathy for the customer.

- We have a larger, long-term mission of humanizing technology. This is not an opportunistic tag line that Marketing told us would be effective. We actually try to do the hard day-to-day work to approach that goal. And considering how important technology will become to us all in the coming years, that lofty goal is something I can believe in.

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