Increasing Customer Empathy from Day One

November 25th, 2014
Published on
November 25th, 2014

The success of many startups can be attributed to founders knowing their target market inside and out. As companies grow and new staff members arrive into a high-pressure, fast-moving environment, this level of customer insight risks getting lost. There’s one necessary component to instilling a high level of UX knowledge and understanding across a large or growing company: UX onboarding. Incorporating UX principles into the onboarding process increases the likelihood that all employees will be as empathetic to the needs and motivations of the user as the original founders.

At Shopify, we’ve recently passed the 500-employee milestone by doubling our staff every year for the past three years. With so many teams now working on different areas of our product offering, a key challenge is retaining a UX-focused mindset across the company.

Maintaining a high level of customer empathy is a key challenge for many businesses. As teams grow, more distance often develops between the employees and customers of a business. Over time, it becomes increasingly likely that many employees of larger organizations may never speak to a customer—let alone know the details of their needs.

Unfortunately, established truths and organizational behaviors are hard to change. In “The Connected Company”, Dave Gray focuses on why large companies fail. Naturally, there are many factors, but he argues that a key issue is that these companies focus inwards (on company needs) instead of outwards (on user needs). As a result, over time, they lose their agility, and their shared understanding of the customer and the market opportunities around them. In order to ensure Shopify would not become one of these failed companies, we began looking into what successful companies did, to pass their UX values along to new hires. I found that companies that managed to follow through with their promise of creating a “UX focus” began instilling customer empathy from day one—when new employees join the company.

Start as you mean to go on

Employee onboarding is the process of integrating a new employee to a company’s culture, processes, and values. It can last from a few days to a few months, depending on the company. Most organizations’ onboarding processes are comprised of a series of talks from key employees and founders to help set the tone for those entering the company. Often, this is combined with general training or social activities to help the new employee become part of the team as fast as possible.

For the new employee, those first few weeks are spent absorbing and adapting to cultural and organizational standards. Used wisely, managers can ensure this time instills company values and UX-focused practices.

FreshBooks, a Canadian invoicing company, makes sure every new employee sees the customer as priority number one by starting every single new hire in customer service. Each staff member spends up to a month helping with customer queries before moving into the role they were hired for. This provides each and every employee with incredible insight into the needs and problems of the customer. It also solidifies a very real message—no one is too important to understand and deal with customer problems.

Other companies are also taking positive steps, both proactively and reactively. In a previous UX research role at high-growth gaming company Paddy Power, I witnessed a change first hand. UX Manager Jonathan Sinden began using new employee onboarding sessions as a way to convey the value of positive user experiences. Traditionally, Paddy Power’s onboarding consisted of information briefings from top tier teams—Marketing and Finance, but not UX—and a heavy manual that covered the basics of sports betting and gaming. Paddy Power valued customer service heavily, but there was little information conveyed about who the customer was, and why they might choose Paddy Power’s services over a competitor.. Following agreement from senior management, UX presentations about customers needs and motivations become as big a part of the initial induction process as Finance, HR, and Product.

The value of UX presenting at these onboarding sessions was immense. Instead of getting thrown into a world of training manuals, new employees gained a practical understanding of customer types, as well as how user research and design work with development. Weeks and months later we’d overhear somebody quoting a UX insight, or have a team we rarely worked with approach UX to help out on a project. It improved company-wide understanding of what the UX team did, and why. Also, because UX was presented along with the other high priority departments, it sent a clear message to every new employee: we value the user experience.

Evolving customer empathy

At Shopify, we’re in the commerce business, and our primary customers are entrepreneurs. These business people often have their own retail stores, or sell online from their own homes. Our UX Research team has had the privilege of spending hundreds of hours on calls or on site with customers, but not every employee has that opportunity. We were faced with a question: How can we share this knowledge during the onboarding process?

In response to this issue, the HR, customer service, and UX teams have developed some additions to an already comprehensive program to help new hires understand Shopify from the perspective of the user. The approach to increasing customer empathy is continually evolving as the company does. Right now, it is composed of three stages.

1. Who are our customers and what do they want?

Most commercial companies exist because they solve a problem for a user. Shopify is no different. A huge part of understanding the business is knowing what problems we solve for our customers. Equally important is developing an understanding of who these customers are. What is important to them? What are they trying to achieve? What opportunities exist for us to help them? Finally, and most crucially, we are trying to avoid UX myth #14; the assumption that we are just like our end user.

Earlier this year, the UX team created a set of personas. They represent the six most common types of people who use our product. They are based on hundreds of in person customer interviews, surveys, and analytics data. The personas were already being used by development teams, and we felt it was something that could help new employees too.

To facilitate the introduction to customer types, each new employee now gets their own set of persona cards—double-sided flash cards that quickly show personas and what that persona wants from Shopify so that the information is memorable and easy to digest. Each set of cards conveys the needs of our key customers as well as their typical strengths and struggles.

Shopify’s persona cards

During the onboarding process, we talk about why these groups of people use Shopify. It’s important to delve into areas that customers typically struggle with, as well as areas that they excel at. This helps new hires understand the breadth of customer needs that the company considers, and where these merchants are coming from.

2. Role play with real products

The process of internal staff using the company’s own product or service is commonly called dogfooding. The belief is that by using their own product, staff learn by doing and become aware of the product’s advantages and limitations. Shopify recruiters always ask potential candidates to open a new Shopify account and attempt to set up an online store prior to their interview. They find this gives the candidate the opportunity to bring practical knowledge of their own user experience into their new role.

Onboarding sessions build on this knowledge. Constructivism theory, or “learning by doing,” argues that humans learn faster in a scenario where they can blend both learned knowledge and practical applications. We want new hires to have a practical understanding of how our customers use our software in everyday tasks, such as managing new incoming orders. We ask new hires to step into the user’s shoes, and go through the process of shipping a fake order to better understand the user’s point of view. These kinds of tasks allow new employees the opportunity to explore the software from the end user’s perspective, instead of an internal or business perspective.

It’s also a great opportunity to demonstrate any physical products the company produces. At Shopify, new employees are given the chance to use Shopify’s POS (point of sale) system in a role play scenario. We set up our iPad-based POS system as a real retail store would, and then ask the new hires to get into groups of two. In these groups, one employee plays the role of the salesperson, and the other plays the role of a customer. We give them fake store products and credit cards so they can complete transactions to get a sense of how the product might be used in a real scenario.

Interacting with the Shopify POS

The sessions are genuinely enjoyable and give new employees more opportunities to interact with the product than a sit-down information briefing. Keep in mind that nerves are at an all-time high in the first few days in a new company, so make sure to frame any role play sessions as a game with no judging.

3. Get out there

Dogfooding is a huge step forward into understanding usage, but to get real insights it’s not enough to pretend to be a user. After all, the majority of designers and developers are more technically advanced than the average user. Additionally, customers have established business processes and workflows around products that couldn’t be imagined if not seen first hand. The solution? Allow all new hires to take part in a real user experience.

All employees (new and existing) at Shopify are encouraged to get out of the office and spend a day working side by side with one of our clients. The aim is to build an understanding of how real customers use the Shopify platform and where it fits into their businesses. My team and I have built relationships with stores in the Ottawa and Toronto area, based predominantly on the feedback we collect from them each time we push out new features. By visiting in person, we are able to expand these relationships to involve more Shopify employees. The program is called “store visits,” and involves each Shopify employee spending time in a customer’s retail store, home, or office. During their visit, Shopify employees help with picking and packing shipments, using the Shopify platform to manage orders and products, and helping with the day-to-day tasks of running the business. Once the store visit is done, each employee brings the customer a small gift as thanks for their time and valuable knowledge.

In some companies this would be seen as unnecessary. Offering a half or full day of employee time may be a hard sell for a company worrying about budget and efficiency. Consider, however, that people learn by watching and doing, and as such, employees will come back with a far better understanding of the platform than could be taught by fake scenarios or presentations.

Executing your plan

What does it take to get UX on the onboarding curriculum alongside larger and more established teams such as Marketing, Operations, and Finance? Each business is different, and each team will have different messages and priorities they want to focus on, but here are some tips to get the ball rolling.

  • Strategy
    Consider: What messages need to be delivered? Will the focus be providing an education in the practicalities of UX work—research approaches, how design and development work together? Will the focus be on building empathy by talking through persona types, telling customer stories, or sharing common customer pain points? There are many approaches, and the right choice depends on the company’s needs. The best approach will complement the UX areas where the company most needs to increase their awareness.
  • Backing
    The support of both senior management and HR is absolutely vital. Both need to be fully invested in the importance of a UX mindset amongst employees. HR needs to be willing to better their onboarding program and senior management needs to make their support clear so the the entire company is on board. Identify one or two C level or senior execs who support, or have taken an interest in UX to help get backing.
  • Prep materials
    Prepare a schedule and some materials that help convey key messages. This could be anything from physical products, to handouts, to powerpoint presentations. Use creativity to set the presentation apart from all the other information sessions (after all, this is about UX).
  • Regular time commitments
    Put a regularly scheduled hour or two aside every couple of weeks for each employee onboarding session. At both Shopify and Paddy Power, this responsibility was shared across the team. Make sure some extra time is allocated to chat with the new employees after the presentation. It gives those who are too shy to ask a question on day one the opportunity to get the full benefit of the training.

Everyone is responsible for the user experience

Truly living up to the modern requirement of being a UX-focused company means employees must be given the opportunity to get to know their customers. Promoting a focus on the customer in an employee’s first few days speaks volumes about the true values of a company. After all, everyone in the company should be thinking about the user experience, in every facet of their work.