Empathy in UX

Empathy” is linked to many aspects and became a part of our everyday. How does empathy help us when we have to design a product?

If we go to the strict definition of empathy we speak of the ability to share the feelings or experiences of another person, imagining that we are in that situation. But why is empathy so important in UX and how can we best practice it?

Why did you buy those shoes?

We talk about putting ourselves in the user’s shoes, but often fail to achieve this as we may only see the shoes, but rarely consider how they got them, what made them buy them, why in that color, why not cheaper or more expensive ones. This is a metaphor: we need to understand the context to be part of that context.

In short, we want to know the different emotions that lead our users to make decisions, what their needs are, what their motivations are, and what scares them.

To get to the bottom of all this, we need to practice empathy

For example, while we are willing to listen, the questions we ask limit us to the world that we are creating for the user. Rather than just listening, we should focus on truly understanding and empathizing. We have to be attentive to capture what users are telling us about our product. Dr. House said, “Everybody lies.” For many people, empathy is not the magic key that will give us all the answers. One of those people is Jason Mesut, who brings up The Dilemma of Designers’ Empathy Delusions.

Let’s look at empathy as a tool. Someone without technical UX knowledge, no matter how empathetic, has a way to go before becoming a professional in the field. So why do we care so much? As UX professionals we want to appeal to emotions. Empathy allows us to decipher why users use our products, what they like, and how they feel. This gives us the tools necessary for creating better products.

The key stages of Design Thinking

If you work in UX, you have probably heard of this process. This is followed by 5 key stages: Empathize, Define, Develop, Prototype and Test. The first stage is building empathy. At this stage, we get to know our users’ problems and difficulties to figure out what things would make their lives easier. We want to focus on stories more, than just data.

There is plenty of information about the Design Thinking process and why it is so popular. If you are interested in learning more about the Product Design Process check these Steps To Designing A Product People Will Love.

Begin by developing empathy: gather first-hand information about the needs and expectations of users, to discover their motivations and frustrations. Next, define, process, and give structure to this information. Then brainstorm, think, and gather all the ideas, prioritizing quantity over quality. Finally, it’s time to prototype and test the idea. With the solution in mind, we can design it to fail fast and cheaply. We want to see how users interact with the prototype and gather that information so that … you know what? ITERATE.

To sum up, the first phase is the foundation for the whole product. Thanks to it, we will develop a product that addresses real user needs and mitigates the existing pain points. Because design thinking is there to help us ask more and better questions, it guides us to assume nothing and point out where the improvement points are. Empathy is the giant post-it note which says “You are not your user.”

How to improve the empathy phase?

There is no exact science to getting through the first stage without ups and downs leading to better results, but exercising empathy can help.

We must always be humble and able to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, as their equal. Yes, we may know more about UX, but come on, we are all human!

We must keep an open mind, put preconceptions, and essentially focus on three essential questions: What, How, and Why.

When we ask “Why?”, we need to understand what our users are doing and why they are doing it. “How?” helps to describe it with adjectives, and discover what feeling and thoughts it evokes in the person, and how it manifests. Lastly “Why?” uncovers what’s behind that decision, and what is driving the person at that moment.

Tools to analyze the exercise of empathy

Once the interviews are done, it’s time to filter and analyze the findings. To discover intangible needs and feelings to understand what should be changed in the product, we need tools that enable us to do this. 

There are several tools for that:

Empathy Maps

Empathy maps allow us to visualize what we know about a user in a collaborative way. it helps understand the user’s needs and should help us make decisions based on those insights. When it comes to times or forms, by sectioning these into Says, Thinks, Does, and Feels, we can understand each user without having to go into detail.

Trajectory maps

This type of map helps us get a comprehensive view of the user and the contact points. By fully formulating them, we can understand how they feel, what they say, and what they think as they interact with different parts of the experience.

Storyboards

Some people need to see to believe. Luckily, that’s what Storyboards are for. Reflecting on actions about how the product is used can be very useful when making decisions. If you don’t know how or why to use storyboards, you can learn a bit more about How UX storyboards can transform your creative process.

Stories always help us empathize. Don’t you believe me? Check How Does Storytelling Help You Create Better Digital Products?

Why is it so important?

Products designed that fail to empathize with users are bound to fail. On the other hand, products that have been thought through, with solutions based on real problems, for real users, are likely to succeed. 

This article compares the experience of Google Glass and “The Embrace Warmer”, a portable incubator that considered both the pains and the needs of its users.

And yes, you have to make an effort

Nielsen Norman Group put together a chart that includes some feelings disguised as empathy. The idea is that the circles represent an effort on the Y-axis and understanding and engagement on the X-axis.

The more effort we make to understand people, the greater the real commitment to their feelings. We can go from pity to compassion, passing through sympathy and empathy in between. At a higher level, more commitment lead to a better understanding of our users.

Beyond UX, empathy is a tool for life itself

To better practice it in the professional field, there is nothing better than doing it day after day! You have to train it as if it were a muscle. It may take a while and some effort, but the results are worth it. Observe those around you, what they do, how they do it, and why.

Before we are designers, researchers or developers, product managers or customers, we are people. Empathy plays a fundamental role in work teams. It helps in creating a better environment within our team and with our customers.

To achieve this, there are several points to consider. First, assume that it is a tool and that we need to develop it as well. Tip: Curiosity as a way of life. When we are children, curiosity is innate, we do not want to focus on banal curiosity, but on the legitimate interest in the opinion of others.

In short, empathy will make you a better professional and also a better person.

Some final thoughts: listen and respect the opinions of others. Show interest in other people. Maintain a positive attitude that gives you confidence and security. Let go of prejudice.

Avoid showing superiority, boredom, or tiredness. Be curious, read, listen, interact with others to see what they have to say. Your users will thank you, and so will thank those around you.

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Lucila Di Vanni Frick

Product Designer from Argentina. Living and creating in Budapest