Empathy is one of the most important tenets of UX design. In the design community, we often use empathy as if it’s just a tool used to acquire insights. But we rarely think about what it means to actually have empathy.
As a designer, how can you get better at empathizing with your users?
What is empathy?
Empathy is our ability to see the world through another person’s s eyes — it’s about giving, receiving, and feeling unity with others. In terms of design, to empathize means to discover people’s needs (both expressed and latent) so that designers can address them through their solutions.
Why empathy is important for UXers
Too many times, great products fail because businesses expect users to interact with the product in one way but they instead interact with it in a completely different way.
To create meaningful products, you need to know your users and care about their lives. That’s why empathy is the foundation of a human-centered design process. The ultimate aim of HCD is to improve the user’s experience by tailoring the product to their explicit and implicit needs.
The Challenges of Being Empathic
Empathy can be assessed, but it can also be developed. Designers who want to bring empathy in their design often face the following problems:
We’re all susceptible to confirmation bias. The problem with confirmation bias is that you selectively filter the information you choose to pay attention to. Designers who suffer from confirmation bias not only actively look for evidence that confirms their existing beliefs, but they also discredit any information that contradicts their viewpoint. Here are a few ways to mitigate your own confirmation bias:
- Abandon your ego. Confirmation bias is rooted in the ego. To truly empathize with your users, you need to put aside your ego, your opinions, and your preconceived notions and actually listen to them. Then, you need to accept what you hear.
- Don’t hesitate to ask for feedback. Surround yourself with a diverse group of people (not just designers or developers), and don’t be afraid to listen to dissenting views.
- Ask better questions. The question itself plays an important role in negating confirmation bias. One of the most worthless questions to ask when searching for the feedback is “How did I do?” It’s worthless because you’ll never get constructive criticism. A much better question is, “What could I have done differently to make it better?” By changing the question ever so slightly, you’ll be surprised by the answers you’ll hear.
Tips On How To Create Empathy-Driven Designs
These are a few popular techniques that will help you to create more empathic designs. Some of them are obvious, others less so.
Learn to observe the people you design for
Many times, what your users say is only a fraction of the story. You can fill in the gaps by adding the empirical data and intuitive information that comes from user observations. Observe real people in real-life situations — when the user uses your product in the their natural environment (work, home, on-the-go, etc) — to find out what makes them tick. Try and understand what confuses them, what they like, hate, and what needs are not addressed by current products and services.
Weave empathetic communication into your interviews
Engaging with people directly reveals a tremendous amount about the way they think.
A few pointers on getting the most out of person-to-person interactions:
- Build a rapport with interviewee. During the interview try to shift the focus to your user. Start with a question like, “How are you doing today?” and actually listen what they say.
- Keep the conversation natural. Each interview should feel like a conversation. Prepare some questions you’d like to ask, but expect the conversation deviate from them.
- Seek for stories and emotions. Try to evoke specific stories to learn about what your interviewee does, and more importantly, thinks and feels. Think of your questions not just as topics to cover, but as ways to get people to share. Ask questions like, “Can you tell me about the first time you tried our app?” “What do you remember about that moment?” or “What was your best/worst/most memorable experience with our app?” Ask “Why?” to uncover deeper meaning.
- Learn to understand body language. UX designers need to read and interpret the signals that users give off via their body language.
Constantly validate your ideas
Having empathy also means that you constantly tweak your approach to get the best solution for the people that you’re designing for: Taking your idea to your users and asking for feedback while keeping an open mind is key.
Create empathy maps
By interviewing people, you can capture physical manifestations of their experiences. When an interview is completed, teams should summarize the highlights of their conversation on a simple one-page template called an empathy map. Empathy maps are a powerful tool for helping designers better understand users. It helps zoom out from focusing on behaviors (how users use the product) to focus instead on users’ emotions and experiences (what they feel when they use it). A common UX empathy map is divided into a few quadrants, outlining notes on a few different aspects of the user’s experience. The quadrants can vary based on needs and preferences, but almost always contain:
- Quotes and defining words (3–5 bullet points of significant things the interviewee said.)
- Actions and behaviors (The user’s behaviors, whether in general or in a specific case. For example: “Returns to the home screen every time she don’t know where to go.”)
- Thoughts (Quotes of what the user is thinking. For example: “I hope this process doesn’t take too long.”)
- Feelings and emotions (The user’s emotional state. For example: “User is confused by the navigation in the app and blames herself.”)
Empathy maps allow designers to infer the intangible meaning of users’ experiences in order to uncover insights.
Maintain the humanity of the people you’re designing for
All too often, we forget that there are real human beings behind the numbers. Create visual personas of your audience and leave them around the office for your team to see. It might be something as simple as a user quote about the product, which summarize user’s feelings or thoughts.
Use storyboarding to understand how people will use a product
Storyboarding is a tool which helps you visually predict and explore a user’s experience with a product. It involves thinking about your product as if it were a movie in term of how people use it. It helps you understand how people flow through the interaction over time, giving you a clear sense of how to create a strong narrative.
One of the most effective ways you can gain empathy is immersion: direct experience of the context, environment, and activities of the users. Bodystorming is the act of physically experiencing a situation in order to truly immerse oneself in the users’ environment. Bodystorming puts the team in the users’ shoes — (The team explores ideas through role-playing and physical interaction with prototypes) — which will increase the their feelings of empathy and help them generate the most fitting solutions.
For example, if you are designing the interactive interface for cars you might role-play a scenario in which you use the system while driving.
Empathy is the heart and soul of user experience design. Being able to connect with your users, understand their goals, problems, emotions, and motivations will make you a better designer and a better person. As we realize empathy with others, we actually become better at realizing empathy with ourselves.