Applying anthropology: 6 tips to build empathy

If you want to create a great service or product for your customer, you need to know your customer. Old news, right?

Yes and no. It’s not enough to know your customer by reviewing demographics and collecting information on user behaviour. Indeed these are useful tools in the process but if you want your designs to have meaningful, positive outcomes then it’s not enough to know your customer; you must understand them. To attempt to truly understand our customer we must develop empathy. Anthropology can help us be more empathetic through training us to be more observant, open and introspective. 

Intuitively, applying anthropology to design makes solutions more impactful. We understand that there are differences between cultures and people. We acknowledge the validity of experiences which are not the same as ours and we seek to understand the lives of others. Anthropology and empathy are intimately linked, like a Mobius strip. Empathy contributes to successful anthropological studies, and anthropology can help us build empathy.    

We begin by recognising that we are different from our customer. That sounds basic, I know, but you’d be surprised how often people forget that. You know the ins and outs of your product and that it is the best thing on the market. But if you put it in front of a potential customer, is it obvious to them? Do they know the same things you do? Most likely not. Maybe they’ve never heard of you or seen your product before. 

We get accustomed to our own personal ecosystem, often surrounded by others with similar knowledge, education or experience, and we tend to forget that there are people out there who have different mindsets. Objects, images, places, words and actions can have entirely different meanings. Just a few weeks ago I was surprised to learn that the word “quite” has an opposite meaning in UK English than in Canadian English. I would say “That child is quite intelligent” to mean that they are very intelligent, but a Brit would interpret it as the child is mildly intelligent. Mind. Blown. I can’t imagine how many times I might have misinterpreted a colleague or friend’s use of “quite” to be rather less emphatic than I believed. 

That’s a huge difference for a seemingly basic word in the same language shared by rather similar cultures. Now it makes sense why my British friend who was quite interested in joining me to attend a live jazz performance never actually showed up. It demonstrates that we can never be certain of the meanings of things based on the surface view and we must make a deeper inquiry. Keep this in mind and as we turn back to the understanding the customer.

The customer is a complex human. It can be difficult for us to empathise with a particular customer in a situation that we haven’t experienced ourselves. We can make an effort to understand and develop empathy for the customer during user research by equipping ourselves with the following six concepts: directness, flexibility, multiple realities, differences, acceptance, feeling. I’ll provide a brief overview for each one but the responsibility remains on you, as a researcher or analyst, to adapt these to each individual circumstance. And remember, above all else, consider the context of the environment your customer works, lives and operates in. Context is everything, and everything is context.

1. Be direct

First, ensure that you are direct and honest about your position, purpose and intentions as a researcher. 

Tell your customer about the reason for your research using language that they know and understand, not technical jargon. Always share important information about how the data will be collected and what it will be used for, including potential applications in the future (and follow GDPR and other applicable regulations). 

But be cautious here. Don’t reveal any details of the specific focus of your research or you could bias the customer and impact their behaviour.

2. Flexibility is key

People are complicated. Things do not always go as planned. Keep an open mind and be flexible in your research. 

One method that usually works great might not be suitable for another customer; you may need to change direction or make adjustments. An unexpected issue might present itself; don’t ignore it because it’s not on the agenda but investigate it further and see where it leads. 

Think of user research as hiking through a forest instead of driving down a paved highway. The goal is not to get from A to B as quickly as possible but to be present in the experience. Don’t just trek ahead down the path at full speed but stop on the side to notice the cheerful sounds of birds chirping, smell the earthy warmth of the fall leaves, and stop to touch the soft fuzzy moss on the side of a tree. These things are not distractions, they are the core of the experience.

3. Awareness of alternate realities

Sorry to the literary fans but Jane Austen was wrong; there is no universal truth. Everyone lives in different realities built on our physical and social surroundings. Something can be a serious problem for one customer but to another customer that same thing is trivial. In fact, both are correct. Each person’s unique environment, interactions and experiences result in a valid reality in which they live. 

4. Prepare to see differences

There may be many differences, and there may be many similarities. Try to recognize and understand the differences rather than trying to impose a top-down approach to conformity. 

Wouldn’t it be great if during research that all our customers love the product and use it seamlessly without any concerns? Well actually no, because if we don’t see differences, difficulties or dissent then it’s most likely that we’re testing the wrong product in the wrong way or with the wrong people. Sorry to burst your bubble but nothing and nobody is perfect, and if the test results are too good then something is likely wrong in the composition or execution of the test. 

It is helpful to keep an open mind and manage your expectations. Know that issues and ideas that you don’t expect will probably arise, things that you couldn’t even have imagined. Embrace these differences because they are a gold mine in customer research! Through understanding the differences and challenges of the outliers we can engineer an inclusive and awesome experience for all customers.

5. Acceptance

Accept differences and celebrate them. 

You’ll have improved innovation and implementation when you accept diversity. Acknowledge the differences you encounter as valid and meaningful, and try to understand and work with them. That doesn’t mean you need to agree with them, but rather that you should accept that they are present and factor them into your future approaches to various issues. 

Remember to be critical and examine what created the differences and what meaning(s) might be found in the way we approach these differences. Even if someone is factually and scientifically wrong (i.e. they believe that the Earth is flat), try to accept that is their belief and seek to understand how that perspective was formed and how it is maintained. This is especially important if your goal is to influence customer behaviour.

6. Embrace feeling

Finally, use your senses to try to feel what the customer is feeling. 

Don’t just observe them but try immersing yourself in the customer’s environment. Conduct ethnographic research even if you have only limited resources. View the world from your customer’s perspective. Go where they go. Do what they do. What are they thinking and feeling? What are you thinking and feeling as you put yourself in their shoes? Some people are naturally more sensitive and highly empathetic, embrace them in your organization, meanwhile, others take a bit more training and experience to learn. 

Now you’re ready to use your position and new knowledge to act as an advocate for your customer. Understand them, promote their views and allow them to have a platform, but don’t speak for them. There are ethical issues about speaking on behalf of our participants (which is too large an issue to address in this article). We should enable our participants’ and customers’ voices to be heard; we can restate their thoughts, feelings, and desires that they have shared with us because our voices often carry more weight. Even with good intentions, don’t speak for them but instead, allow them the personal agency to speak for themselves. Defend their perspectives if necessary. If you’ve done ethnography you can advocate for the customer but also for yourself as you have shared the personal, physical and emotional experiences.

As the first stage of the design thinking method, building empathy is essential for success in the subsequent steps in the process. Applying these six tips taken from anthropology can help increase your understanding and empathy for your customers. The minor additional effort is worth it to achieve the resulting rich insights and improvements to your products or services.

To learn more about how empathy can transform your business, join us at U-Sentric’s Human-Centered Design Summit in Leuven on 24 October 2019. For more info and to register visit