An eleven years old boy sits patiently in the school’s secretary waiting for his form tutor to come to pick him up. It is his first day of school, after moving with his parents from Brazil to England. When the teacher finally arrives, running ten minutes late, they rush off to the gym where the whole school is gathered for the headmaster’s monthly “all hands” of sorts. So by the time the boy walked into a gym packed with hundreds of boys aged between 10 and 14, everyone was already sitting on the floor anxious to get it over with and go back to playing conkers. As he enters the door, all eyes turn toward him – the new kid, who also happens to be a foreigner from Brazil, has arrived. The assembly’s concentration is broken, kids get up to meet the foreigner, and dozens of questions are simultaneously thrown at the kid who can barely understand English.

I am that boy. Being a kid in pre-teenage years moving to a foreign country throws you into a lot of situations like that, even if that is one of the most remarkable and stuck to my mind for a long time. Once the novelty of being the new kid wore off, though, I quickly started practising a skill that would be extremely helpful for me in later life – empathy.

You see, the cool thing about different countries is that the large things are mostly the same, but the little things are not. So we all go to school, but there are tons of little rules that are different. Packed lunches. Sock inspections. PE kit. Detentions. As a young kid trying to fit in, you immediately put yourself in your classmates’ shoes and make it look like you’ve been playing conkers since you were a baby. You learn that there are many different ways to do the same things, and, in the end, they all work. The different paths just add interest to the journey.

Stringing a conker, according to the Wikipedia
Yes, I did harden them in vinegar. Call me a cheat.

Your truths become a little softer. You find that things that you took for granted can be done in different ways that you didn’t think of, but which work just fine. I mean, if driving like that was the right way to do it you wouldn’t have to tell people which way to look when crossing the road, right? And yet, people seem to get around quite safely.

Thanks BockoPix on Flickr
You’d think he’d know by now, but apparently even the locals need to be reminded at each street corner.

So it is with building products. You can be, or consult with, the biggest domain experts in the world. But what if your users do that task one hundred times a day, not once like you do? What if cricket is actually fun after all? What if your users can’t read those labels because they’re colour blind? What if beef grilled that way does taste good as well? What if your users don’t know whether their export file needs to be comma or tab separated? Apply a little empathy and it will be easier to find out.

Take customer development, for instance, the most popular and least often used technique for figuring out whether the product you’re about to build actually solves anyone’s problems. Done properly, the interviewees should talk about the tasks they perform and the difficulties they face when performing those tasks. Which is, in fact, a way to momentarily put yourself in their shoes.

It turns out that building good products is really all about empathy – how can you solve a problem that affects a lot of people in a way that lots of people will be able to connect with and incorporate into their lives. And for that, getting a lot of practice into understanding how other people think and operate is really valuable.