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The Real Key to Great Product: Empathy

I read Why the best product managers don’t build the features their users ask for the other day, as a result of seeing a Re-Tweet by Greg Fischer of this tweet.

Building product is what I do and, hence, something I think about constantly.

The part that hit home for me:

…the fundamental responsibility of a product manager is not to be the company’s leading expert on the product but to be the company’s leading expert on the customer

At a fundamental level, product management deals with the most difficult problem in human experience: how to see things from other people’s point of view.

Building products for others to use is ultimately an act of empathy. Every decision made about how a thing is built and how it should be used comes from the worldview of the maker. How well they can see things through the user’s eyes determines the value of their work. No one person can see the world through another’s eyes. It’s all approximation and guesswork.

Putting yourself in others’ shoes is incredibly difficult. You really only “know” what you’ve experienced first hand. That’s as true in product development as it is in international development. People are great at thinking through problems and solutions from their own perspective, but seldom from the perspective of others. And, what do you know, most people are very different than yourself. Building products from your own perspective is a mistake virtually every product manager has made; I’m no different. Oh Hey World was a product I thought valuable based on my own nomadic habits at the time, but didn’t actually solve a real problem for many people (read more on the OHW journey & what happens when you tackle problems that aren’t actually problems).

To bring the topic of empathy and product development back to real estate, what does real estate look like — from your clients and potential clients perspective?

I met a friend for lunch yesterday, who is in the market for a home (first time buyer). She’s submitted offer after offer but been rejected every time. It’s a competitive market, especially at the price points she’s making offers at. She’s bummed out.

How can you help her?

Don’t tell me, “but they don’t understand x and y and z” — because that doesn’t matter. Clients don’t care about your business realities. They don’t care about market realities. They care about selling their house, or buying their dream home — as cheaply and quickly as possible.

Maybe they dream of not having to pay “rent” anymore (a friend of mine recently bought a home for that reason). Maybe they dream of buying a vacation property instead of continuing as landlords. Maybe they dream of not having to deal with their renters anymore on Saturdays.

Whatever it is, figure out what problems they have, and dig into the underlying “why” those problems exist. Want to build great product that wins the consumer? Disregard your own interests, and solve their problem. Otherwise, you’re simply destined to tread water for eternity (while spending a boatload of money).

PS: Given the core mission of Horizon is empathy creation, I suppose the fact that I love product design precisely because it’s an act of empathy makes sense.

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About Drew Meyers

Founder of Geek Estate Blog / Geek Estate Labs. Zillow Alum. Travel addict & co-founder of Horizon. Social entrepreneurship & microfinance advocate. Fan of Red Hot Chili Peppers and Kiva.

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