UX designer : your empathy will make the difference


The capacity to understand and to act from someone else’s perspective is important for designers and creators of new services. Because the way we make things and the way we interact with others, depends on how much empathy we put in. We must first understand the people that we are designing for, in order to build products that are usable, useful and desirable.

" He had wondered as had most people at one time or another precisely why an android bounced helplessly about when confronted by an empathy-measuring test. Empathy, evidently, existed only within the human community, whereas intelligence to some degree could be found throughout every phylum and order including the arachnida. (Dick 28)"“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?“ by Philip K. Dick

Except that eventually in the novel, androids get to pass the test and they acquire/hack empathy. When I started my research on the subject of empathy, this quote from one of my favorite movies (Blade Runner), immediately came to my mind …

We passively experience empathy. But as a skill, it is quite possible to actively practice it and intentionally empathize to improve it for the benefit of the users and our design work.

Be receptive to the values of the others

“I can’t come up with any new ideas if all I do is exist in my own life.”Emi Kolawole, Editor-in-Residence, Stanford University

The level of empathy varies from one person to another. Same with humor, sense of irony, honesty or courage. So when it comes to our ability to empathize, some of us will be more or less recipient to the emotions, thoughts and experiences of others.

Certainly one of the most fruitful and challenging forms of communication in human interactions, empathy becomes an indispensable tool for the designer. Surprising? Not really. How many professions are every day challenged with the creation of products and services that are supposed to satisfy not only today’s needs, but also those that are still unknown or unsaid? A user-experience designer is like the tightrope walker of the company.

Moreover, experience proves the power of empathy in UX design. Every single one of us, designers, remembers one or more moments on a project, marked by great tensions in which no one understands any one. Each camping on its views and positions, on an ego trip and stuck with external limitations. Generally, we face those moments at the beginning of a career. With time we learn to temper ourselves and handle every conviction and belief with more empathy.

It will always be easier to appreciate and identify with those who look like us. The challenge is obviously to treat the same way those that differ from us. Empathy is not just about understanding feelings and emotions of the other. It is about recognizing that the truth of the other is as acceptable and valid as our own.

Good news, empathy is a skill, not an innate talent. And as any skill, we can practice it and get better at it.

Exercise empathy in UX design (and beyond)

American publisher specialised in UX subjects, Rosenfeld Media, published among others the book “Practical Empathy for Collaboration and Creativity in Your Work” from Indi Young. Consultant in User Experience design for many years, Data Scientist and speaker, the author relies on a solid experience to provide us with few tips.

These tips contribute to the development of empathy with users and clients and eventually anyone you want.

  • Listen to what is not being said. It's about knowing how to go beyond the surface level of what people tell you, by grasping the path of thoughts of your interlocutor. It is something that is learned and only the practice will refine your perception of the unspoken (beliefs, motivations, internal barriers...). Sometimes people will say things that are contradictory either with their body language or an actual action they're achieving while talking with you.
  • Adopt a discreet and mirroring behavior. Surely you will have to start the conversation. But opt for a broad topic, and then it will be up to your interlocutor to continue in the direction of their choice. Dig into the last few remarks. If necessary, come back to a point, whether to verify your understanding, to pull attention to it, or to get more information. Try not to say “I” as much as possible, make short sentences and do not use the vocabulary that your interlocutor isn’t using.
  • Be involved. Show yourself engaged in the conversation, do not pretend, care deeply for what is being said. The sincerity of the process strengthens the trust. Also, take the time to capture the mood of the meeting and the mood of the participant. Adapt accordingly, as a musician to his audience.
  • Be respectful. It might seem self-explanatory, however, some people really do struggle to resist the urge of demonstrating how smart they are.
  • Neutralize your reactions. Someone who is well trained in empathy will become more aware of him/herself. You will recognize your own emotions a little bit better too, and the reactions you associate with them. This emotional maturity will allow you to realize that others can have different reactions than you do. It will nourish your open-mindedness.
  • Don’t take too much notes. In short, tie-up the researcher who is in you. Note taking, takes you away from your interlocutor and slows the pace of the conversation. Notepads and pen are not prohibited but they should serve you to throw a few keywords on the paper. On the other side, nothing prevents you from recording the conversation or letting a colleague take over that part.

Empathy, a different kind of listening

To wrap up, it is about respectfully and actively listening and watching. It's a different kind of listening, because empathy remains a difficult exercise where you have to make a special effort of attention to your environment. You have to really dedicate a part of your attention to the development of empathy towards your interlocutors and their needs. While there are various UX methods that promote empathy, the practice of active listening is in a base of all of them. A good “listener” worthy of this title is not satisfied with only what is being said. The body language, actions, behaviors, context and where the discussion takes place are revealing and must be taken into account.

Developing one's empathic abilities is therefore not only about establishing harmonious relationships and your own emotional maturity. It’s about making sure that initial needs of your project haven’t been forgotten.

Staying focused is equally important in the process. After the period of listening, comes the period of creation. The know-how, the fact-based expertise, the experience, the creativity, talent, but also the intuition distilled from all the information collected are combined to create the desired product. We, designers must take responsibility to create beyond the imagination of our client / user, while also respecting the initial need. Like a tightrope walker we must find just the right balance to succeed.