Tedde van Gelderen
Founder & President
Empathy in UX Design
Empathy is a popular term in user experience design nowadays. Many sources recommend that designers need to first empathize with users to create better experiences. And I’d wholeheartedly agree with that. However, what I hear in countless conference talks, and read in blog posts and other industry publications differ greatly from what I hear when designers talk to each other.
The difference is that many seem to interpret empathizing as something that they need to do themselves as opposed to an outcome of an initial step, a goal of understanding, or user research. Create empathy for your users as something you do yourself as you begin to design as opposed to a first step in understanding your user’s goals, tasks and attitudes. The difference of using empathy as a verb versus a noun.
Then when I hear someone state that “what we need to do as designers is to empathize with our users” and I see nodding heads around the table I often wonder what each one is agreeing with. The noun or the verb. Especially when that statement is rarely followed by a conversation on how to understand user needs, discover their scenarios of use, explore their goals, product perceptions, etc.
A statement about empathy risks becoming a table stakes remark, like “we need to make this really easy for the user”. One of those statements we can’t/won’t disagree with but is not further explored beyond this lofty statement. Because that’s the whole point of empathy: we want to deeply understand our user so we can design experiences that fit their needs and capabilities as best we can. Preferably without making the age-old mistake of placing ourselves in the shoes of the user and pretend we know how they reason and feel. And that is what these remarks often sound like: saying that if we care enough, think enough about our users we are ok, we’ll design better experiences.
So, if you see empathy as an activity, as something you do, it doesn’t take much to see yourself doing this. To empathize creates the sense that the designer needs to do their own understanding, their own user research. I think that this is not a bad idea as long as you recognise that not all designers want to be researchers or have the right skillset and knowledge to do this well. For those, there are many behavioural professionals out there that do great user research and team up with designers to get to the bottom of user needs, wants and attitudes. These combined teams would use research techniques like observation, participatory design, ethnography and experience immersion. All great because it acknowledges the definition.
Empathize: Understand and share the feelings of another
For UX-ers it means deeply understanding the use (goals, tasks) and sharing the feelings (motivations, attitudes, perceptions) of the users to capture this understanding in enough detail. If we end up doing user/customer research and share this carefully with the experience creation team (via persona profiles, user stories, customer journeys and experience maps), we will empathize much more deeply with the end-user. This won’t happen however if we only empathize by ourselves, imagining about the users in isolation without going out and gaining empathy with the user in their context of use.
Something similar goes for developing empathy. Empathy is described more as a competence, a skillset.
Empathy: The ability to understand and share the feelings of another
Like I said before, this is not for everyone. Some designers will have no problem developing their empathy skills, others will take a lifetime to truly develop the ability to understand someone else’s feelings. It’s quite handy if you can, but I feel it is not a prerequisite for being a great designer. You can as a designer be very successful if the team you’re working in has enough people that have great empathy skills and they get a chance to go out there and gain empathy with users and customers. It’s great if it can be you as there is quicker understanding, but some business contexts don’t always allow for that. In any case, bring back those deep user insights to help inform the design. That is quite a reasonable approach.
So, it’s ok if you have a UX researcher being the insight provider to help translate the insights into some design goals and direction. This is making research one part and raw creativity another part of the equation.
Empathize = User Research
I think by now you get the picture, it’s great to empathize, develop your empathy skills and apply these as much as you can throughout the design process. We need to do both the noun and verb, and preferably in a team setting where designers, strategists, and researchers work together. That designers need to develop their empathy is beyond doubt, it helps, always. That designers need to empathize I’m not so sure about. They may in some cases, in many others they would get the help from a researcher while being involved (observing, participating) but not leading the user research.
If you strive to get the best out of everyone, play to their strengths and enable knowledge sharing behaviour, this approach works great. I’ve seen researchers have great ideas in design workshops and witnessed huge “A-ha” moments when designers observe the user muddle through a design in a usability test and understand why they struggle. There is enough learning to go around as UX research and design remains a profoundly rewarding challenge.
Tedde van Gelderen
Founder & President
Continually looking for ways to improve the experiences of others, Tedde has dedicated his professional life to experience design, research and strategy. He derives energy, motivation, and purpose from improving the experiences of others and believes that every organization — and every industry — can benefit from Experience Thinking.