Empathy and Design

Empathy map, user experience (ux) methodology and design thinking

em•pa•thy
/ˈempəTHē/

noun
the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

As defined, empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. You’re able to put yourself in other people’s shoes to see their point of view even if you’ve never been in that particular situation before. Having empathy allows you to help others and show compassion. We may not experience or see certain struggles ourselves, but this is the true characterization of empathy; everything is about the person or the group rather than injecting our own subjectivity.

Being empathetic is an extremely important skill to have especially as it relates to UX designers. Our foundational premise as UX designers is to understand our users, we break down the problems by asking questions and finding the ‘why’, and then we put the pieces back together with better understanding. Any good designer can design something functionally beautiful, but having an empathetic approach to your users will result in better adoption of your products. Without empathy, the design process is devoid of user-centricity which is often the distinction between success and failure.

Empathetic design caters to the actual needs of real people rather than proposed assumptions. Building a successful career as a UX design is founded on mastering the art of empathy. Research shows that empathy is not a fixed personality trait, but rather learned behavior. According to the largest ever study into the genetic basis of empathy, “just 10% of the variation between people’s compassion and understanding is down to genes.”

Practicing empathy in your everyday life is vital to incorporating empathy into your design career. Facial expressions and body language are two of the main micro expressions we humans display that can either make someone feel comfortable to divulge sacred information or feel intimidated and hold in their feelings they want to express. The more you incorporate empathy into your daily routine, the easier it will be to understand your users during your next design project.

“Practicing empathy in your everyday life is vital to incorporating empathy into your design career.”

A great place to start practicing empathy is within your company. Generally, you see the people you work with on a daily basis, Monday through Friday, and through conversation, you find out much about their personal lives such as if they have kids, play sports, any extra-curricular events that they’re into. Creating a comfortable atmosphere at work with your peers is a wonderful way to practice empathy, build relationships, and grow stronger as an organization. This chart created by the Nielsen Norman Group is a great depiction of the spectrum of feelings disguised as empathy. The circles are placed on an X-Y axis, where the Y represents effort, and the X stands for understanding and engagement. The more effort we make to understand people, the greater our engagement with their feelings is. Pity is a low-impact sentiment — it provides very little real value. Empathy and compassion, however, offer greater insight into another human’s condition. As a result, this can be leveraged to create tailored design solutions.

Image Credit: Nielson Norman Group

In closing, empathizing with your users (and your peers) is crucial to the design process. Without empathy, all of the ensuing steps would lead to a generic, lifeless product that doesn’t serve the needs of a particular group.

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