User Empathy

Understanding Other Perspectives for a Better Experience

We went camping this past weekend at one of our favorite local spots (hence the delay in this post—apologies). It was a welcome respite from the exceedingly hot weather, which has been over 100 degrees Fahrenheit or 40 degrees Celsius most days.

We took our camping trailer, which is our favorite way to camp. One difficulty with a camping trailer, though, can be to back it into tight camping spots. If you’ve ever towed a trailer and had to back one up, you know how difficult it can be, especially if you’re not doing it all the time.

This year, our spot was easy to get into and we didn’t have an issue. But last year was a different story.

We had a tight spot in a busy part of the campground. I’m generally okay backing up our trailer, but not so much in tight spots. And it only makes it more difficult when there is a lot of pressure from other campers waiting because we’ve stopped traffic.

So we tried a few times, then had to give up and make a loop around the campground so other cars that were waiting could get to their spots. We did this twice, and I was getting extremely frustrated. My wife, who was trying to help guide me by letting me know how much room I had or which direction to go, felt helpless. We had little room to maneuver, and both felt frustrated.

The camp host noticed our predicament and came over to say hi. She asked if we could use some help. I don’t know if I could say much with how frustrated I was, but fortunately my wife explained we could use some help and the camp host went and grabbed her husband, Gary.

Gary apparently has dealt with hundreds of frustrated guys backing trailers into tight spots, because he came up to my window and had me pull up to the spot he wanted me. His wife signaled to him, and rather than expect me to translate those signals, he told me exactly what to do. Turn the wheel a half turn to the right. Now turn it a full turn to the left. Keep going straight back. Another half turn of the wheel to the left. Now a full turn to the right. Now all the way back. And stop there.

I didn’t have to do anything regarding the trailer. Gary was focused on that. I just had to focus on his instructions to me. And we ended up with the trailer exactly where we wanted. No back and forth. No cars waiting. No more frustration.

The entire experience was magical. I’ve never seen someone able to walk next to a truck and give specific instructions regarding turning the wheel like that. It was way better than me trying to look back and forth while trying to see the directions from my wife while paying attention to everything outside, too.

Frustration gone, we got back to enjoying our camping trip, like camping trips should be enjoyed.


It’s easy for all of us to get wrapped up in the trailer. That’s the thing we need to end up in the right spot. It’s what we’ll be using during our camping trip and we need it close to the water and power. We need enough room to get in and out. We need to be able to open the canopy for shade.

But the trailer only gets to where it’s going because of the driver of the truck. So the trailer may need to go another foot to the right, but what does that mean the driver needs to do? It can be confusing when backing in a trailer, since it goes against how we are used to turning the vehicle.

What Gary did was simplify the process. He put his focus on me, the driver, so that all the instructions were about what I should do. It wasn’t about which way the trailer needed to go. It was about what I should do. He knew what I was trying to achieve (get the trailer into the right spot), and he used his superior knowledge and expertise to easily guide me there.

How often do we miss this in our products and experiences?

We had an email come out recently about returning to the office. Not to pick on our HR team because these are easy mistakes to make, but the focus was completely on the company rather than each individual user.

I could see they were thinking about how the company was going to manage employees returning to the office, and that was showing through. There wasn’t any communication about how employees were going to manage returning to the office.

Where should you park? Do you need a parking pass? When will you get a badge? How can you activate your account for building access? How should you activate the app for reserving a space?

I followed up with these questions, because I think about them every day, and we remedied the situation. But it’s easy to focus on the trailer rather than the person driving.

The same goes for our products. How often are we focused on the product rather than the user? The trailer rather than the driver?

I love to sketch on my iPad. I’m not an artist—far from one, really. But I like the ease of sketching on an iPad. I also like to sketch out ideas and thoughts and other product stuff. It works like my digital whiteboard frequently. I also love to let my kids sketch on it as well. I’ve got their drawings saved from years ago, which is fun.

I’ve used Adobe Photoshop Sketch for a long time to do all of that. It was simple and easy. It had the tools to sketch out ideas and drawings for my articles. I could also doodle and sketch whenever I felt the desire. Or let the kids play around and experiment. It was simple enough they needed little direction.

Then recently I got the notification that Adobe was end-of-lifing Sketch and Draw, and moving to Fresco. So I downloaded Fresco and tried to sketch out a few ideas for an article. I found it nearly impossible to get some simple shapes and text.

It was really frustrating. As a product, Fresco is probably great. Jam-packed with features, like many Adobe products. But it was impossible for me. So I quit. I don’t want to learn to be a power user when I’m a simple user. I need something focused on me, rather than the product itself, so I can make my simple drawings.

I turned to Procreate, which is well-known among artists and iPad users. I’d been meaning to try it for a long time anyway, and I was not disappointed. It has a lot of options, and probably many of the same power features. But it also has some very simple features too. I could easily create shapes and sketch out ideas. I could also hand it to my kids and let them draw.

It felt like they designed the app for me, the user, to easily get started drawing and sketching. Which is what I wanted. I didn’t have to focus on learning a lot of extra features or tricks to do simple things. I didn’t have to worry about turning the trailer left or right. I could focus on the wheel to get where I was going.

Our products and experiences should focus on the user. It starts with understanding their problems and their needs. In my case, the fact that I was uncomfortable backing a trailer into a tight spot. Or with my drawing apps, that I need relatively straightforward tools to create the illustrations I want.

From there, we focus on helping the user create the right outcome. Getting into the camping spot. Making simple shapes. Or getting into the office easily. Employees don’t care about making it easier for their company, they care about their company making it easy for them. So don’t make the mistake of getting the experience backwards. It’s not about the trailer, it’s about the driver.

Other Good Links

Musk tells SolarCity trial that Tesla would 'die' if he wasn't CEO (article) - Some interesting stuff coming out of the SolarCity trial. Elon Musk said he doesn’t actually like being the CEO of Tesla, but he has to do it “or frankly Tesla is going to die.” Musk is accused by some Tesla shareholders of orchestrating a harmful, self-dealing takeover of SolarCity in 2016 to bailout his investment in a family-run enterprise.

Surely We Can Do Better Than Elon Musk (article) - Sometimes I’m not sure what to make of Elon Musk, so this article captures many of my feelings well. He seems like both a genius and a huckster. “It turns out it’s all true. The cars are impressive and their flaws get covered up. Musk is a lying ignorant grifter and he has inspired innovation in the electric car industry. Understanding that these seemingly contradictory things can be true simultaneously is important, because societies who cannot hold these two ideas at the same time may end up following scam artists and false prophets off the cliff and into the abyss.”