UX Design, Empathy, Communication

“What we all do is with the customer in mind.” (Dane Howard)

One of our GrowthX Academy Mentors, Dane Howard, who is the Chief Experience Officer at Trov Inc., an InsurTech company, stopped by recently to speak with our UX Design class. He’s a 20 year veteran of an industry that still only barely understands what he does best: Listen. Dane shared his wisdom about listening, not only with what he said, but how he approached the classroom and each of us, as individuals.

When he introduced himself to our group, a subtle, but powerful wave hit me. His personality, though calm, quiet and attentive, was almost imposing with empathy. After shaking everyone’s hands, he sat on an elevated chair and immediately lowered it to the point that he was just below our eye level; this was him effectively putting himself at our service, another gesture from his overwhelming empathy. Instead of starting into a presentation, he started by asking each of us questions.


“What are you here for?” After giving everyone an opportunity to respond, he asked multiple follow up questions. I was reminded of an expression I’d recently heard from another GrowthX Academy UX Design Mentor, Alan Van Pelt: “Ask ‘why’ until it’s awkward. Then, ask two more times.” And there he was, doing just that. After the first person answered Dane’s follow ups, the awkwardness broke and we understood Dane’s true special power: Listening with such great intent that you feel that his brain was temporarily part of your own. He was interested, and he was on side with me, at least for that moment. I might have stared right into his eyes the entire time he spoke during the next 15 minutes, almost as if I were combatting his empathy with my own.

Listening is a tool not just in UX design but in leadership, he points out through a story he shared about one his most influential leaders at Microsoft, where Dane was a Design/UX Lead. He explains that this leader would guide his teams by asking the right questions. Each question would be built on the previous response, but lead the conversation to the areas of interest that he felt were highest value. That’s exactly what companies are looking for when hiring a UX designer.

“People love what you do because you think differently,” Dane points out. Everyone thinks differently, so your perspective adds to the cumulative experience your department offers.

This is how you can provide value not just at a broad scale or leadership position, but as an individual contributor inside an organization. “Listen to what you enjoy!” he added, no doubt aware of the fact that he was now asking us to be empathetic to ourselves, as if recalling the UX design tenet that one must keep a long distance between themselves and their designs. Keeping such a distance from yourself while designing your life might seem a little bit challenging.

He started discussing empathy and its substantial role in your work environment itself. He explained how valuable listening is not just for understanding your clients but your organization as well, which, in many cases, is in as much need of UX design thinking as the product itself. He relayed another story about an opportunity that he and John Maeda had to asses the organization they worked at together. Their first step? Interview all of the designers. Interview and Listen. They spent hundreds of hours understanding the needs of the “users” (employees). In UX Design, Know They User!

He summarizes their experience by pointing out that their efforts were 97% listening and 3% design.

The result? The organization adopted a strong UX design-forward mentality and employees soon began expressing their appreciation of the new environment.

As with any discussion targeted at product designers and, in our case, UX designers, Dane reminds us that what we all do is with the customer in mind. No matter how organized or disorganized your company is or appears to be, Dane says that “Customers never care how you’re organized, yet companies behave like that all the time.” 

Observations like this remind us to take ourselves seriously, but never so much to lose sight on why we exist to begin with.