Building empathy for humanity, in 5 days

Building empathy for humanity, in 5 days

Matt Shanks

Matt Shanks

Principal Product Designer & Author/Illustrator for children. I'm out to improve the quality of life for everyone who uses the things that I make.

Breaking your filter bubble to increase empathy

Introducing Refni

When you meet Xiao Han, it’s difficult to be unaffected in some way by her personal mission — create connected and immersive experiences that truly enrich people’s lives. So when she came to Cogent with Refni, her digital product that was conceived to bust our individual filter bubbles by allowing us to step inside someone else’s bubble, it was met with nods, smiles and vehement agreement. YES! This was a thing that should exist!

Like with most ideas that come from the heart, converting it to a business proved more difficult than anyone thought possible. Whilst users and investors agreed that this was a problem that needed solving, people were simply not willing to pay for the experience. It’s the classic user problem where intention to act does not convert to action.

So, with an investor dinner looming for Xiao Han, Cogent couldn’t help but assist her with trying to find a creative way to turn Xiao Han’s mission into a product people would pay for. And yes, we reckon’d we could do it in just five days.

The plan

Borrowing from the framework set out by Google Ventures, we planned a set of activities that would see us:

  1. Uncover a new market with a problem that needed solving
  2. Plan a solution to it
  3. Prototype the solution
  4. Test it with real users and prove or disprove the idea

Oh, and did I mention that this was all in five days?

The Team

  1. Product Manager
  2. Designer
  3. Founder
  4. Experts as needed

Inventing and trying to prove a business in five days isn’t for the faint-hearted. We constructed a very intentional team to get the job done. The aim was to get a mix of diverse, creative thinkers in a room together for the entire time so that ideas are generated, challenged, and iterated on quickly.

The aim was to get a mix of diverse, creative thinkers in a room together for the entire time so that ideas are generated, challenged, and iterated on quickly

For Refni, we thought expert product management and business thinking was a must. So Cogent product manager Adam Murray was an obvious choice. Adam has founded several of his own businesses, and also helped countless others do the same. He runs a podcast called ‘Subtle Disruptors’ and hosts Cogent Conversations so his head is constantly in the space of bleeding edge thinking. Exactly the sort of thinking Refni needed.

Next cab off the rank was finding someone who values empathy and understanding the experience of humans above all else, a designer. I was, of course, the first to put up my hand. With over 15 years of experience across research, interaction and visual design, I thought my breadth of knowledge was perfect for being able to think across the whole scope of what Refni could be. I also happened to be in love with the idea of Refni and I knew from experience, nothing is more motivating than that.

Last but absolutely not least, founder of Refni, Xiao Han Drummond. The one who’s been living and breathing Refni for the last 12 months. She’d been speaking to investors, potential buyers, customers and experts across AI, design and engineering, gathering all the opinions and thoughts of how Refni might evolve. Xiao Han, along with a group of experts she’d met along the way would form the basis for a team that would knock this Sprint out of the park.

So, how did it go?

Day 1: Going deep on the problem

3 whiteboards full of boxes, arrows and post-its show just how messy the thinking becomes but how important it is to capture it
3 whiteboards full of boxes, arrows and post-its show just how messy the thinking becomes but how important it is to capture it

Map out the problem and agree upon a target

Monday was intense. For everyone. To make sure that we had razor sharp focus for our goal, we had to begin by thinking long-term. In which general direction was Refni heading?

In 6–12 months, what does the world look like for Refni?

To keep a long story short, it looks something like this:

“Refni has a big influence in providing a way that humans build empathy for each other.”

We arrived at this goal through an intense process of discussion. Adam and I challenged Xiao Han from every angle. What makes this the goal? And why? To answer this question, Xiao Han needed to go deep, right back to the beginning. Her core values, her original mission. Over the course of a year in a start up it’s easy to shift your focus so gradually that you don’t even know it’s moved. Getting clear on the long term goal got us all looking in the right direction. We knew where we wanted to be, and importantly, where we didn’t want to be.

Creating the journey map

Because the idea of Refni had been around for a while, Xiao Han described how she imagined it working. In fact, there was a working prototype already. However, we all knew that whilst the idea had been met with interest from a number of people (investors included), she had not yet proved that the idea would be something people would pay for.

So, like good designers and product managers do, we poked and prodded. Not Xiao Han of course, that would’ve been weird, but we really analysed the idea with her help. And, after a few hours, it was pretty clear that there was no business for her in selling to consumers, but maybe this was something businesses would pay for?

It’s fair to say that the outcomes of Day 1 shattered us all. It was incredibly tiring to stay so focussed for so long, and to walk away with no clarity, but a different question. This definitely wasn’t how a sprint was supposed to go, but we ploughed on anyway.

Day 2: Exploring a business for a new market

According to Google Ventures, Day 2 is about sketching solutions. But I’ll be honest, we almost never got there. The GV Sprint process is a framework after all, so we tweaked it a bit, and basically replayed Day 1. We threw out the current Refni prototype, but kept hold of the vision and the long term goal. We went back to basics to answer a simple, user-focussed question.

What problems do product marketers currently face?

With Xiao Han’s expertise and background as a product marketer, working together, we mapped out the steps that a marketer takes in order to build a campaign or bring a new product to market. By going through this process, step-by-step on a whiteboard, we uncovered the fact that whilst there’s loads of quantitative data that marketers have access to, and need to collate, there’s very little qualitative data. And, quant data without the qual breeds a lack of confidence in the data overall. Hey, I think we found a problem!

Historically, qualitative data is difficult to gather. It’s time-consuming and therefore expensive. It’s also difficult to get that data at a scale that makes it statistically significant. I knew from my own experience as a designer that this was definitely a problem, and Xiao Han knew it was a problem for marketers.

But what makes for valuable qualitative data? Well, Xiao Han and I made a list:

  • Context. Where are your customers? What are they doing and why are they doing it?
  • Authenticity. It’s important to know that you’re getting real reactions. Fake qual data is completely useless.
  • Timeliness. Qual data can often take weeks to gather, from start to finish. The quicker this process can happen, the better.

With these elements burning away in our brains, we arrived at a question like a lightning bolt from some divine sprint being:

Can we provide a new and valuable way for product marketers to understand existing and new customers’ experiences?

When we articulated the question in this way, the feeling in the room changed. Collectively, we felt we were on to something. We knew that there were a plethora of services already out there to give marketers’ information that they use to make decisions. Could three people sitting in a room invent a new one? And then address a long standing question about qualitative data capture and analysis along the way?

Idea Generation

On the afternoon of Day 2, we followed GV’s recommendation of working together, alone. With our own thoughts, and some pen and paper, and some background music, we started to imagine how we might solve such a problem. As we progressed through the sketching process, thoughts began to crystallise. We were on to something, but, it was the end of the day.

The homework for the night was to gather some inspiration. Things we think are the bees’ knees for any reason at all. It could be related or completely unrelated to whatever it was that was bubbling away in our brains. We’d share our best-of lists in the morning, with fresh brains.

Day 3: Coming up with the idea

Capturing the best parts of ideas (and keeping them visible at all times) are really important in a Sprint
Capturing the best parts of ideas (and keeping them visible at all times) are really important in a Sprint

By Day 3 we were back on track with the Sprint and so it was time to start sharing all those ideas we had on our own from the day before.

What inspires us?

After a nice cup of Wednesday coffee, we all shared our homework. Xiao Han showed an incredible documentary series about being human. And an art project where some guy has gone around New York and just captured sounds of different locations. Again, an art project, but it was clear to see where Xiao Han’s head was at. It personally gave me an incredible insight into her vision and mission and what she was wanting to achieve through Refni.

Adam and I also shared our ‘best of’ lists. But they weren’t nearly as interesting as Xiao Han’s. No matter what was shared, the essence of the idea was captured on a post-it and stuck up in our working space. It would stay there for the rest of the Sprint.

Now that we had been inspired, it was time to explore each other’s personal ideas from the day before.

Sharing sketches and, well, shutting up and listening

The work from the previous day meant that we all had our own individual ideas of how this thing could work. Now it was time to present those ideas to each other, and quite frankly, shut up and listen to the feedback.

When your work is being critiqued constructively, the best response you can have is to shut up and listen. It’s amazing what you can learn when you don’t talk for a few minutes.

The Sprint guide goes into much more detail about what happened here, and for reasons of protecting IP, I can’t. Suffice to say that the Sprint guide’s instructions worked a treat. Individuals were listened to, respected and challenged for their ideas. Highlights were captured, and so were lowlights. It was an incredibly open, transparent and honest session, exactly the sort of thing we value at Cogent. I also found it very energising after a few tough days. It finally felt as though we were getting somewhere.

Open and honest feedback on ideas from any team member are welcomed in a Sprint
Open and honest feedback on ideas from any team member are welcomed in a Sprint

Consolidate all ideas down to one

Like with most idea generation sessions, everything is hunky dory while everyone is being listened to, and patted on the back for a job well done. But, in order to test a prototype in just one day’s time, some hard decisions need to be made about how we’re going to test our Sprint question through a prototype. The balancing act begins and you typically need to consider a few things:

  1. How does it contribute to answering the sprint question?
  2. How the hell are we going to make it in the time we have left?
  3. Who will do what in making it happen?
  4. How does it contribute to answering the sprint question? (Yes, check it again and again to make sure it still is. You don’t want logistics de-railing the end game).

And so we storyboarded the experience that we wanted to test. Led by our designer (yep, that’s me), we corralled the best of the best ideas, and invented some new ones, in order to plan a prototype experience that was achievable by the morning of Day 5, and did what it needed to do to make sure we got the answer/s we needed.

By the end of Day 3, things had very quickly come together. From having nothing on Day 1, to having a vision, and a plan on how we were going to test our riskiest assumption about that vision, was quite incredible. I’ve never seen this done in the 15 years I’ve been working. It made me reflect on the power of focussed human effort and the way we’re currently working outside of the Sprint process.

Day 4: Make it, break it, then make it again

Matt prepares for testing the prototype. Computer? Check. Healthy snacks? Check. Plenty of water? Check. Cardigan to make it look like he’s a researcher? Check. Ok, so maybe you don’t need the last one.
Matt prepares for testing the prototype. Computer? Check. Healthy snacks? Check. Plenty of water? Check. Cardigan to make it look like he’s a researcher? Check. Ok, so maybe you don’t need the last one.

We spent Day 4 in making-mode where Xiao Han, Adam and I divided and conquered. We assigned ourselves tasks from the day before and each went our separate ways to achieve them. Our aim was to be fully prepped for prototype testing by the morning of Day 5. The prototype didn’t necessarily have to be digital, and we were very open to it being something that we could fake without using a computer at all. But, in the case of this new idea, an experience through a computer was inescapable. In fact, it’s kind of what we were testing. We used a combination of legwork, Sketch and Invision to create a sticky-tape and shoestring clickable prototype that illustrated Xiao Han’s new product concept perfectly. We then did a mock run through with a colleague to iron out any kinks and give ourselves full confidence that this was the best way to test in order to answer our question.

We. Were. Ready!

Day 5: Test, Learn, Win!

Matt and a research participant discuss the prototype. The pros and the cons are equally important.
Matt and a research participant discuss the prototype. The pros and the cons are equally important.


I’ll be honest and start with this, Day five testing is intense. That thing that the three of us having been excitedly working on over the last four days gets introduced to the world. It’s hard not to feel as though your own competence is being tested when you test a prototype like this. It’s scary, intimidating, but so damn exciting.

And you know what, we won. Our test participants gave an enormous amount of feedback. We had an entire whiteboard covered with post-it notes three layers deep (which, yes, made it hard to analyse later but that’s another story and we learned from that).

This photo is a bit blurry, we know, but the feedback was coming thick and fast during the prototype testing so Adam and Xiao Han had their work cut out for them.

What did we learn?

Almost too much. No, wait, you can never learn too much. The main thing was that we had an unequivocal answer to our Sprint question. Yes, we could provide marketers with a new and valuable way to understand their audience. But, that’s not all we learned. Here’s just a short list:

  • We uncovered our next riskiest assumptions

  • We got an insight into how different product marketers think

  • We validated that it wasn’t just product marketers who could use this

  • We saw the power of the platform in bringing emotion to people, and

  • Most importantly, we saw a way that Xiao Han could keep a razor sharp eye on her vision, whilst still making something that people would pay for.

Phew. Incredible.

What happened after day 5?

Well, Refni is still Refni, but with renewed vigour. The best thing about the Sprint is that the outcome basically signposts what you need to do next. There’s a lot of work ahead for Xiao Han, but it’s great work. Work you want to spend your life doing. Work where you wake up and think, “Yes, the world needs this and I can bring it to them.” And really, that’s always the sort of work we aim for. Something with meaning and purpose, and hey, if it pays the bills at the same time, well that just means we can keep going.

Links and quick references

Thanks to Cogent and Xiao Han Drummond.

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