Empathy is the Best Anti-Itch Solution for Product Developers

Chris Lema says one of the biggest mistakes product developers make is scratching their own itch at their users expense. It got me thinking about how GiveWP started as an itch-scratcher too.

As a business owner and product developer, I’ve made my fair share of mistakes. Like announcing release dates too far in advance (and then of course not meeting them!). So whenever I have the chance to learn from others’ mistakes, I jump eagerly.

Today I read this:

Ever look at a WordPress plugin and notice a feature seems to be missing? So you ask the developer if the feature is on the roadmap. Or if there are plans to add it.

“No. That’s not what it does. It’s a focused plugin that just does what I want.”

Chris Lema, in “The Mistake Too Many Product Developers Make

Lema calls that “scratching your own itch”.

The idea of “scratching your own itch” is what gets many into product development in the first place; I think it’s a great place to start. But staying in that mentality results in not listening well to those you are adopting your solution and risking losing broader adoption.

How GiveWP Started as an Itch-Scratcher

We built GiveWP initially as an itch-scratcher. Devin and I had built many different nonprofit websites and online donations were always a pain to implement. So we had an “itch” to solve that problem.

Devin had already built a nice single-page checkout plugin for WooCommerce (called Quick Checkout, now owned by Amplify Plugins). We thought that would be a great way to do donations, and make sure everything was treated as Donors and Donations. Simple idea, narrow focus, solved the problem we had just fine.

Over the years we started to hear more and more requests for things that we didn’t know were needs. At the time Recurring Donations seemed like “extra” — turns out it’s the most important part of fundraising. Other requests came in too, like donating “In honor/memory of” or annual tax receipts, or auctions, or Peer-to-Peer fundraising. These are all things we know about now, but at the time they were not scratching OUR itch, but our users’ itches.

Empathy is the Best Anti-Itch Cream

So how do you avoid just scratching your own itch? Lema concludes his piece saying:

You should learn to build products for customers that are nothing like you.

Over time I started saying “I have to remind myself that I am not my Customer”. What I think works, or looks nice, or is relevant, is often different from what they think works. This forced me to do two things:

  1. Dig deeper into all our marketing and customer data to allow that to inform my decisions more; and
  2. Re-engage in direct emails, support tickets, and our FB group with customers to learn more about their needs.

Doing those activities regularly overtime builds up what I consider to be the most important aspect of product development, and running any kind of business at all: Empathy.

Empathy puts you in your customers’ shoes. It takes you out of your own perspective. It makes you feel more objectively how awkward your solution can be sometimes. Empathy allows you to put your own itches aside and prioritize the needs of your users.

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Caveat: Focus is Necessary

I wrote about what I call the “Single Purpose Philosophy” for products a while back. At first glance it might sound like the opposite of what Chris is saying, but it’s really not. Empathy with your customers cannot take precedence at the expense of focus on your products core purpose. Solid product development requires both focus and user empathy.

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Pippin Williamson (founder of Sandhills Development) shared with me once that he had users requesting a shipping extension for Easy Digital Downloads — his popular eCommerce plugin for digital products. If he followed those requests, he’d corrupt EDD’s Single Purpose on digital products very quickly.

The best way we’ve found to prioritize our users’ needs with empathy while not losing focus is using a public feedback tool. This allows you to have a vault of feedback that others can view, comment on, and vote on. The most popular requests float to the top and should obviously get the most immediate attention. We use Canny at GiveWP and it’s been excellent for us.

My Encouragement to You

Nowadays, I have a lot of itches that I’d love to scratch with GiveWP for nonprofits I still work with, but those needs are far less sought after than what the majority of our userbase wants. So they get scratched far less often.

My encouragement to you today is to read that post from Lema, read about the “Single Purpose Philosophy,” implement a feedback forum like Canny if you don’t already have one, and scratch your itches on the weekends if you really need to. But above all, listen to your users with empathy, and keep working to live, never living to work.