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Emotional Intelligence in Product Management

Much has been written about the role that emotional intelligence plays in product management, particularly about the importance of empathy in helping us “see” through our customer’s eyes.  Studies show that empathy is the result of a specific response from our brain when we perceive emotion in someone else. Our brains activate in the same areas that activate when we ourselves experience the same feeling.

This is accomplished through “mirror neurons” that synchronize with their neurons, enabling us to understand the emotional state of another and experience empathy. Aligning with our customer’s perspective lets us accurately identify “pain points” they encounter while performing tasks and accomplishing outcomes that are important to them. It is only then that we can create products that truly add value from their viewpoint.

A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another.

Product teams have typically focused on using empathy to improve physical tasks and outcomes. Discussed less often is the fact that our customers also want help achieving emotional outcomes.  During the last recession, I led an onsite discovery session with an automotive manufacturing executive and his team. Automotive recalls were a new market for us, and as an untested newcomer, we were having some difficulty breaking in.  It was a tough time for these manufacturers. Vehicle sales (and revenue) were plummeting.  Some entered bankruptcy. Others faced class-action litigation from large safety recalls.  

The executive’s body language clearly showed his distress. He said his suppliers didn’t understand how hard it was for his team to handle recalls. They didn’t provide the respect, understanding, and support that was needed.  I can still hear the immense stress in his voice and see the frustration on his face.  My response, driven by empathy, was the desire to create a product that reduced the anxiety and strain these manufacturers were undergoing and provide the best user experience that we possibly could.

Product practitioners: Perceiving and Satisfying Emotional Needs

It has been on my mind a lot recently that we are living through a unique moment in history in so many ways. Driven by events for which we were not prepared and an environment that has pushed us out of established routines and the certainty of safety, it is not surprising that most people are experiencing stress.  We work longer hours from home with interruptions from leaf blowers, pets, and children, yet at the same time are distanced from the emotional support of extended family, friends, and co-workers. There is less time with more to do.  During this period of heightened emotions, consumers are able to tolerate less. Companies that show they have empathy for and “get” their customers by addressing their emotional needs will be memorable and successful.

There are many ways of gaining customer feedback to understand emotional and non-emotional needs, and just as many schools of thought as to which are best.  Methods include onsite visits, watching customer journeys online, trading information via chat, interviewing by email or phone, surveys, and many more.  Which method is chosen can be influenced by a variety of considerations, including what type of product it is; how far along the discovery is; proximity to the customer (as with global teams); budget, time, and resource constraints; the culture of the product organization, etc. 

There is no one right answer.  My personal preference is to leverage onsite observation and interaction whenever possible due to the rich and diverse types of feedback they enable, including the ability to deeply assess emotion through voice, body language, and facial expression in order to understand how customers feel and to develop empathy.  Looking back on my conversation with the automotive executive, I wonder if the urgency of his emotional needs would have translated as vividly on the phone or in an email.

In this era of social distancing, how do we gather rich feedback?

Gathering rich, multi-modal feedback while social distancing is challenging but not impossible, and can be significantly aided by current technology. For example:

  • Services such as Zoom or WebEx can run a camera and microphone in the background, allowing observers to observe expressions, see body language, and hear sounds remotely. If users concurrently share their screens, their interactions with the product can be correlated with their expressions and vocal cues as picked up by the microphone and camera.
  • Similarly, digital tracking software can be used to observe users’ online actions while a camera and microphone capture associated activity.
  • Measuring user behavior and tracking KPIs is even more crucial than it has been in the past and can be augmented with measuring emotions. Along with the usual, such as whether new features are being used or landing pages have high bounce rates, metrics can measure emotion through actions such as “rage clicks” or responses in the form of emojis.
  • If you’re co-located together onsite, you can follow social distancing and still obtain a wide range of feedback by projecting users’ computer screens on a larger shared screen for everyone to see while observing body language, comments, tone of voice and facial expression.

In addition to the opportunities above, it is always a best practice for Product Management to collaborate with the User Experience and Engineering teams as early as possible. Each area adds knowledge and a perspective that, when combined, is greater than the sum of the parts. It is also important to test in short, iterative cycles, gaining user feedback each time, and making corrections quickly based on what was learned.

Looking forward: Emotion AI’s promise in Product Innovation

Emotion AI is a technology that interprets and captures consumers’ emotions by analyzing text, facial expressions, body language, voice intonation and patterns, and even eye movements. It has formed a brand-new class of consumer data. According to Accenture, it is “coming of age, creating a tipping point for opportunities.”  Companies have been using Emotion AI for some time to interpret users’ feelings across social media, surveys, and other text-based applications as well as call center phone lines in order to acquire feedback about an already-launched product or to personalize the customer experience during product use.  Marketers have also leveraged the data to target consumers and personalize marketing messages.  As its capabilities have continued to expand and refine, including the improved recognition of facial expressions and body language, for example, its uses have grown as well, and it is now in the nascent stages of being leveraged for product innovation.

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