How far can you really walk in someone else’s shoes?

Cognitive empathy is kind of a big deal.

Especially for anyone who spends their workweek on a mission to meet someone else’s needs (in other words, most of Planet Earth).

Job stories are an exercise in cognitive empathy. They’re a quick and dirty tool that designers, copywriters and developers use to work out how meet their audience’s needs. They force us to think about the audience in the first person (“me”).

They look like this:

When [catalyst occurs], I want to [get this done] so that [I achieve this result or get rid of this problem].

Job can be pretty helpful, but they are far from perfect.

Imagine a company that sells beard trimmers. This company has just set up its first ever online shop. The copywriter at this company has to decide what SEO metatext to use for the homepage, to make sure the people out there who would benefit from a beard trimmer can find it.

Here’s a job story the copywriter might use for their target customer:

When [my new beard gets out of hand], I want to [find a highly rated beard trimmer through Google], so that [I can buy one and keep my face lookin’ fiiiiine!].

Now… as a lady-type human myself, I don’t have all that much of a beard.

Which makes this particular job story an exercise in artifice.

You are rarely your own target customer. When you a user story in the first , you have to write as someone you’re not. You have to pretend to be someone you’re not. It’s instantly fake. Horribly presumptuous. Even a tad egomaniacal? As an exercise in empathy (which needs to be authentic), it comes up shorter than a 0.5cm goatee.

So in my travels as a mostly beardless lady, I’ve found a way to make job stories more useful and less imperfect as an exercise in cognitive empathy.

Instead of writing a job story in the first person, I picture my one ideal customer. A real live human. Someone I’ve come across through research. And then I picture their situation. And then I write a longer narrative about them in the second person (“you”).

That way, I don’t have to pretend to be a bearded 50-year-old, but I can still get under the person’s skin:

You’ve just turned 50 and have grown your first ever hipster beard in honour of the occasion. You’ve enjoyed the transformation, but lately your friends have started to ask if you’re sleeping on the couch. You need a beard trimmer. Whenever you need a personal hygiene product, you generally turn to Google to find an online seller (and avoid the cash-desk awkwardness). You also tend to value endorsements from people like you. So you open Google on your phone and type “buy beard trimmer” into the search bar and look for a result that mentions good reviews.

This makes it easier for me (I know I know I’m only a sample size of one) to write copy that gets results. I can drop the act. I can get out of my own head and think about the reader’s head instead, beard and all, and not a shoe in sight.

The next time you need to solve a problem for your audience, how might you experiment with second-person narratives?

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