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Diverse Teams Have Greater Customer Empathy

Product Team
Product
Users
Diversity

6 September, 2021

Kirsten Zverina
Kirsten Zverina

Head of Product at Abethos ventures

Kirsten Zverina, Head of Product at Abethos Ventures, shares her experience encouraging diversity and inclusion in her team, to spark benefits for customers in mass-market products.

Problem

I was leading PMs on data products that were increasingly being used by older audiences. And yet we didn’t have diverse voices (especially in age) in the product teams. Taking a look at our latest user feedback, we found that the older audiences struggled with key elements of the user journeys. And they were often thrown by jarring assumptions. And while our PMs knew how to build for people other than themselves and how to leverage user research, it was still difficult for team members early in their product career, to recognize when there might be an audience experience to look for, outside their own — i.e., an age they had not personally lived yet. And hence the challenge was how to get a team of PMs in their 30s or younger, to empathise with customers who were often in their 60s, or older.

Here are the steps I took, so we could build a better mass-market product together.

Actions taken

Personas

We first used personas, which started to improve things, as they helped build initial awareness across the teams, of the different audience segments and their different goals, when using our product. However over time, these personas oversimplified our audience's needs and it became difficult for the team to understand or empathize, when real users' needs differed from the standard persona profiles. And given we wanted to have mass-market appeal, we needed to find a better way to, for example, understand our older demographic’s diverse accessibility needs.

Advocating Inclusive Design

So next, I started talking about inclusive design principles and what I learned using empathy labs (places, where software and hardware can simulate accessibility challenges e.g., low vision). I discussed these concepts with our PMs and the company leadership, to get support to work on these ideas, at a strategic level. By the way, you can find more about these principles here and software tools that help build empathy, like NoCoffee. As hoped, these visual demonstrations of the challenges, like ‘NoCoffee’ had a much greater impact on our teams than simply theory or even customer’s feedback. Being able to experience a version of these challenges themselves, helped the teams prioritise solutions. Soon they were thinking more inclusively on all user journeys and working proactively to remove roadblocks (e.g. assumptions on age) and getting great customer feedback on their changes.

Diverse Friendly Hiring Practices

Building on these discussions, the teams themselves started to raise questions about supporting diversity even more. And with support from our company’s existing diversity and inclusion forum, as roles came up in the team itself - the team and our recruiters went above and beyond, to not just hire in traditional networks but to go to diverse professional networks too. A pivotal moment in recruiting, was when the managers themselves started asking candidates, what diverse perspectives they could bring to the product. And when candidates were telling us, that this focus on inclusion attracted them to the product and our role!

Ultimately, thinking in this way and the changes we all made, resulted not just in great customer feedback but in a better mass-market product overall (more accessible to broader audiences) and it helped us source great talent for our teams.

Lessons learned

  • Diverse teams are by themselves, naturally faster at empathising with diverse audiences. This means they often find it easier to build better mass-market consumer products.
  • If you don’t already have a diverse team, there are many steps you can take to improve the situation for your team. For example personas and tools that visually demonstrate accessibility needs, can help a less diverse team (that doesn’t personally face those challenges), understand their real impact, when they are building for broad audiences.
  • When teams can work together well, to build a more inclusive consumer product - it feels great! It’s hugely inspiring and motivating to everyone involved and it can help you attract even more great talent, to deliver on a mass-market vision together.

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