In every business, regardless of industry, it is important to keep an open communication line between the consumer and the producer. In the tech world, this line of communication comes in the form of customer support, chatbots, or contact forms. There’s often no direct line of communication between the developers who build these products and the end users, especially as a company grows. Developers receive requirements of the products to build, focus on shipping their projects, and, if need be, fixing bugs that surface after the end users have interacted with the product.
This creates a situation where developers become out of touch with the products and who they’re building for. As with most things in life, when you’re out of touch with something, it can often result in a lack of empathy for people whose lives involve using the said thing. This lack of empathy can affect the quality of products that are subsequently built.
This is why at Shopify, we have developed a program to make sure our customers (our merchants) and their problems are accessible to everyone at Shopify. Communicating and connecting with customers provides multiple benefits for developers, including:
- Providing perspective on how customers interact with products
- Creating new experiences from customer workarounds
- Expanding domain knowledge
- Developing valuable interpersonal skills
Providing Perspective on How Customers Interact with Products
“Listening to customers describe their problems helps me as a developer relate to them and build more context.”
The development process doesn’t usually have room for interaction between the developers and customers. As a result, developers might ultimately deliver the requirements list they are given for a product, but in the end, the customers might interact with the product in a different way than expected. Developers must fully understand how and why these differences arise, which might not be accurately articulated by Support Advisors (think of the game of telephone where messages get misunderstood and passed along). By somehow interacting with the end users, developers will be able to see the products they have built in a new light and the customers’ fresh eyes. More importantly, developers will get to see that their customers are human too, and in the case of Shopify, more than just shop IDs or accounts.
Creating New Experiences from Customer Workarounds
As developers interact with the customers, they can see how they use the products and create workarounds like this to get the desired functionality. This is very important in informing developers about what the customers really need and what to build next. Before you know it, you start to roll out bug fixes, newer product versions, and possibly new products that address these workarounds and make customers’ workflow a little more seamless.
Expanding Domain Knowledge
End users have limited knowledge of the different parts that make up the product, so they tend to ask an array of questions when they contact support advisors. Support Advisors are trained to be generalists, having a lot of knowledge on different (if not all) parts of the company’s product. While interacting with customers, a developer may get curious about new domains that are totally out of their regular workflow. This curiosity is very beneficial because it fosters the growth of more T-shaped developers, that is, developers who are specialists in a particular area but have general knowledge about a lot of other areas. After listening in on a support phone call, one developer said that it forced them out of their comfort zone to explore new product parts.
Developing Interpersonal Skills
Technical Support Advisors encounter different people and temperaments all the time. They’re trained and experienced to listen, communicate and help customers resolve their issues. Patience and empathy are required when dealing with frustrated customers. Developers can foster growth and improve their craft by listening more, communicating effectively, and setting realistic expectations. These skills are important to build because sometimes, the solution to a problem might not be immediately apparent or fixable. A frustrated customer wants a solution, and they want it immediately. When this happens, you shouldn’t make false promises to appease the customer; instead, you should navigate the situation to realistically set expectations to put the customer at ease.
Given these advantages listed above, there is a case to be made for companies to develop a system where the distance between the developers and customers is reduced. This will help build empathy in the developers as they begin to see the actual users of their products, as human as they come, rather than the ideal personas created during the development process.
How We Build Empathy at Shopify
At Shopify, we have found an effective system of getting developers (and non-developers) closer to our merchants, appropriately called Bridge the Gap.
We launched the Bridge the Gap program in 2014 to connect Shopify employees to Shopify merchants via the Support teams. The mission of this program is to ensure that everyone working at Shopify has the opportunity to connect to our merchants in a human way. There are three channels in this program:
- Internal Podcast
- Shadowing Sessions
Workshops are organized around specific topics and areas of our platform where we take a deep dive and learn more about our merchants’ experience in these areas.. Participants can ask questions throughout to gain context and clarity about how merchants use our products.
Our internal podcast focuses on merchant experiences, an insightful channel for allowing everyone to learn more asynchronously and at their own pace. It contains clips from a support call and a discussion between the Support Advisor who took the call and the podcast host.
In these sessions, you shadow a Support Advisor for one hour as they take questions in real-time from merchants through chat, phone or email. These sessions may be for a broad audience or focus on a specific part of the platform like marketplaces, partners, Plus merchants, etc. Participation in these shadowing sessions is voluntary but strongly encouraged.
Our mission at Shopify is to make commerce better for everyone. Regardless of the discipline you’re working in, our mission remains to have the end user in mind, and Bridge the Gap gives us all the opportunity to build awareness and empathy.
Ebun Segun is a software developer working primarily in Shopify’s Orders and Fulfillment domain. Since starting out as a backend developer in 2019 mainly writing Ruby code, she has transitioned into frontend development, involving the use of React Native and GraphQL. When she’s not working, she takes care of her numerous house plants, dabbles in fashion designing, or volunteers for programs that encourage females in high school to pursue careers in STEM. You can reach out to her on LinkedIn or Twitter.
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