As the VP of product at Caremerge, a clinical and engagement platform for senior living, I have to think about every person who touches our product. 

Because we’re designing for older adults, we have to infuse all the work we do with a sense of empathy. I need empathy for the senior living residents who will engage with the product, of course. But I also need empathy when I collaborate with the rest of the people on my team.

Good product design requires understanding the needs of multiple stakeholders. You need to consider the needs of the end-users, the engineers, and the product managers and know how to communicate with each group. On top of all that, you have to know how to meet each group’s needs effectively. Here’s what that process of collaboration looks like for me.

During user research, treat your users like teammates

Spending time with your users is an essential part of user research. In fact, it’s the foundation of human-centered design. But too often, product leads either don’t spend enough time, don’t spend any time, or simply don’t get anything out of their time with their customers. 

Product leaders should actually collaborate with their customers. This will take a lot of empathy, and empathy for someone different from yourself comes from spending time side-by-side with them.

Earlier in my career, I actually lived in senior living apartments for days or weeks at a time, with the community’s permission. I also shadowed and observed community events and staff meetings and talked with as many people as I could. This gave me far more insight than if I had just visited a community for a day. I got a real sense of what life was like for these older adults and staff members. 

Of course, it’s not always going to make sense to actually live with your customer. But when you’re spending extended time with your users, think of them as if they were on your product team . Constantly ask questions and embed their opinions into your product design later on — never assume you know better than your user. 

I draw on my experience in senior living all the time in my current product work. 

In the senior living industry especially, product leaders must treat older adults with dignity and respect. The vast majority of the time, they’re not older adults themselves, so they need to be extra mindful of how they’re representing their users. But this isn’t unique to senior living. Product leaders have different backgrounds from their users in many industries, which is why user research is so important to cultivating empathy.

Share your users’ stories and do “user research” with your product and engineering team

We never want to lose sight of that firsthand experience with our users, so we build out stories to guide our product people and engineers in their designs. After getting to know the older adults and staff in senior living communities, we create user personas to educate the rest of our company. 

But here’s the catch: those personas won’t have the same effect in a report or in an email. Product leaders should actually sit down with their product and engineering teams to tell those stories.

I manage four people: three product managers and one UI/UX designer. We aren’t in the same location as the engineering team — product teams often aren’t – so we often hold a “lunch and learn” to share our findings with engineering.

Product leaders should have the same empathy for their teams as they do for their users. To understand how to reconcile what you want for your user with what engineers can realistically build, conduct your own “user research” with your teammates. Get to know their workflows and the common challenges they face. Note here that you should also have the humility to admit that you don’t understand everything that goes on with engineering. Say an engineer recently found some inspiration from a big tech competitor. How can you incorporate that and reshape it to align with your own goals? Ask them more about it. Product leaders should always be learning by talking to their engineering and product coworkers.

Collaboration isn’t linear

Communicating with every person involved in the creation of your product doesn’t happen in complete stages. 

A good product leader should constantly go back to various stakeholders to ask more questions. If you worked with the engineering team on a feature, go back and ask, will it make sense to a user with limited tech experience? How can you help facilitate its rollout?

Working in the senior living industry has taught me how to be an empathetic problem solver.   

Product management is a balancing act. You work with just about everyone in your company, your market, and your industry. Get to know their perspectives as often as possible so that you can define goals you might have never come to on your own. Because remember: everyone is on the same team.

About the Author

Kim Kessler is the VP of product at Caremerge, a Chicago-based startup that provides EHR and wellness solutions for senior living. She's passionate about human-centered design, user empathy, and the emerging market of technology for seniors.