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“Design with empathy” is a no doubt a piece of advice you’ve heard before. Of course you want to understand your users so you can create a product that more authentically serves their needs. But what does it really mean to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes? How about five miles?

That’s what the product development and user experience design teams at Fitbit began asking when they realized their user base had changed. What started as a product for people who were passionate about fitness evolved into a community of users looking to get healthy, track their food and lose weight by embracing the collective challenge of walking 10,000 steps a day—approximately five miles.

“The interesting thing that has happened as we’ve grown is a lot of the people who use our products are people who need to make a change in their behaviors, so they’re not super excited about fitness,” said Katy Mogal, head of UX and research design at Fitbit. “One of our challenges as we grow and our audience becomes more mass and mainstream is how do we understand the users whose specific problems we don’t share?”

The FODMAPS Experiment

When the Fitbit team was doing exploratory research related specifically to diet and weight loss, they knew visiting people in their homes wasn’t enough. Instead they asked, “How do we really feel what those people are feeling, not just communicate what they’re feeling, but feel it yourself?”

Mogal opted to go on the FODMAPs diet, a highly restrictive diet that is sometimes recommended for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The diet involves avoiding more than 100 common foods, things like dairy, garlic, onions, most fruits, legumes, processed meats, sugars and grains.

In doing this experiment, Mogal wanted to understand two challenges her users commonly face:

  • Feeling confused about what you can and cannot eat (knowledge)
  • Feeling socially isolated (social support)

Out for dinner one night, she saw first hand the decisions and temptations users are faced with in every day situations.

“You’re looking at a menu and you’re like, there’s nothing I can eat here, and you’re having these social issues when you’re just trying to have a nice meal out with friends,” Mogal said. “It was a way to partly experience what our users experience even though we can’t live their lives fully.”

Hard Empathy

This type of experimentation is called hard empathy, which Mogal describes as “finding ways to emphasize with an experience you’re not actually happening.” She says it is a type of counterfactual thinking “that activates the same part of the brain that drives innovation and creativity.”

She took notes from her empathy idols, people like Patricia Moore and other pioneers of experiential empathy, when she began her FODMAPS experiment.

Designing for a user problem that you don’t deeply understand is really hard to do,” Mogal said. “You’re much more likely to successfully design for a user problem that you deeply understand. It also makes you more creative and more innovative when you do this kind of counterfactual thinking. It has a neurological effect that stimulates creativity.”

Supporting Users When They Want to Give Up

Mogal only conducted the FODMAPS experiment for a few days, but she couldn’t wait for it to be over. It gave her valuable insight into her users in just a short amount of time, and revealed why it can be tempting for users to want to give up on their goals.

This is an ongoing challenge for Fitbit. Obviously, they don’t want users to lose motivation because then users would be less likely to continue using the product. Yet the product itself also has the potential to cause a user distress, especially when they don’t achieve their desired results.

“The question is if somebody never makes their goal, should you recommend they adjust it and how do you do that in a way that’s not offensive?” Mogal said. “It’s really demoralizing if you’re looking at your app everyday and that circle that tracks your progression to goal is never completed. How do you keep it motivating when people are struggling?”

The struggle is real, but it keeps Fitbit inspired. About nine months ago, Fitbit overhauled its dashboard after a participatory design exercise revealed that users didn’t want certain information on display.

“One of the things that everyone said, which probably shouldn’t be surprising but was a big learning for us, was people don’t want their weight prominently displayed in the app,” Mogal said.

They also added an onboarding process to help users set a realistic step goal for themselves that varies from the preset 10,000 steps from before, and continue to prioritize the social components of the app. Users who combine realistic goals with a strong social support system, which includes the Fitbit connections and communities they foster, are far more likely to succeed.

Can You Be Too Empathetic?

One thing Mogal is exploring right now is if there is ever a time when you can be too empathetic to the point the experience becomes patronizing? Some users thrive when challenged; others quit. How do you balance these different behaviors?

With multiple products and user types all using the same app, Fitbit must work to support the needs of those users that struggle with their weight while still serving their original community – those super healthy users that use the product to track and enhance their fitness.

This is why Fitbit’s hard empathy doesn’t end with one aspect of their user base. While Mogal tried an extreme diet, other members of the Fitbit team have literally run marathons with users in order to understand the other side of the spectrum.

“To me that is the next level of empathy. Really doing it and going through it,” Mogal said. “I think there’s a lot of evidence that these kinds of experiments lead to really powerful design solutions.”

Sheena Lyonnais

Sheena Lyonnais

Sheena Lyonnais is a Toronto-based writer, editor and digital specialist. She works in content marketing by day, studies digital strategy by night, and practices yoga somewhere in between. Follow her on Twitter @SheenaLyonnais.


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