Feeling Their Pain

A meme floating around in the content strategy universe right now is about empathy—how we, as consultants, need to feel the pain and understand the needs not only of the end users of the sites and experiences we create, but also that of the clients who hire us.

I’ve written about this previously—how we are often in the position of being the sounding board for internal frustrations and grievances and the liaisons who help bridge organizational divides. The importance of that ability to listen, reframe, and resolve was the subject of a session at Content Strategy Forum 2012 given by Corey Vilhauer, called “Empathy: Content Strategy’s Hidden Deliverable.” We are accustomed to thinking about the strangers we’ll never meet—the users—and have a defined set of tactics for designing for their needs (personas, customer journey maps, user research, and so on). The clients, on the other hand, are the ones we meet face-to-face and we can serve them (and, ultimately, their customers) best by asking questions, getting to a shared understanding of terms, being clear about goals, giving all stakeholders input, using internal politics as leverage when necessary, and giving them the tools to maintain what we’re leaving them with, whether that’s training, helping them prioritize and delegate, even talking with their management about getting them more resources.

Being Agents of Change

The theme of working within an organization to bring about change was also addressed in Jonathan Kahn’s session “Embracing Your Role as a Change Agent.” Change is hard, there’s no question about that—if it weren’t, there wouldn’t be a need for consultants to help organizations navigate through it. But as Kahn says, “You can’t solve problems without changing organizations” and content strategy work involves systemic change. To bring about change, we need to combat denial, organization-centric thinking (those silos that separate the organization), and make ourselves open and vulnerable. By doing so, we can help create empowered individuals and organizations.

Again quoting Corey Vilhauer, “Empowerment doesn’t happen overnight, but it doesn’t happen at all without some kind of catalyst. That catalyst is often found in the passive act of listening.”

Being Open to Failure

That vulnerability includes being open to the idea that we may fail and honest about it when we do. But as Corey Vilhauer says, “If we go into a project afraid to fail, the project will never begin. Admitting that failure is necessary and unavoidable means that we, too, could fail, and that is a pretty difficult thing to admit to someone who is cutting checks for our work.”

There are many reasons we may fail at achieving the perfect solution on the first try. But we can mitigate that by using the soft skills of empathy and active listening to really understand users’ needs. In a recent newsletter, titled "Empathy, the Web Professional's Greatest Skill," Gerry McGovern wrote “The trend towards greater and greater customer empowerment requires a deeper and deeper understanding of customer needs.” He cited the tactic used by Tomer Sharon, Senior UX researcher at Google, who started “Field Fridays,” regular events designed to get developers out of their comfortable chairs and out into the field to talk to and learn from customers. McGovern quotes Sharon as saying “Some people are just scared of what they'll hear…. They are afraid of failing and of invalidating their assumptions…. It is our jobs (UX practitioners) to help people recognize their assumptions.”

And although we may fail, we learn, we pick ourselves up, and we try again. If we've been open with our clients and established a trusting, empathic relationship, failure can be survived and even help show us the path to success.