Empathy: The UX Pro’s Secret Weapon

| September 2, 2015
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I’ll never forget the first time I heard about empathy.

It was my first job in retail when I was in high school. I came home frustrated after dealing with a challenging customer and shared the experience with my mother.

I described how the interaction impacted me and after I’d finished venting my mother asked me how I thought my customer was feeling at the same time. I realized I hadn’t even considered it. Maybe she was having a bad day. Or a really bad day. I had no way of knowing. All I knew was that she was interacting with me in a way I didn’t like or understand.

What I found out later made me re-think my stance. It turned out my mother knew that woman (I grew up in a small town) and she’d recently found out that her husband had cancer. If I’d known that at the time I would’ve felt differently about my interaction with her. I would’ve realized that although I didn’t fully understand what she was going through I could be kind, patient, and understanding.

That’s when I first really understood empathy. Thankfully it isn’t always under such adverse conditions, yet it remains an important consideration. Especially when it comes to designing fantastic user experiences. Here are a few reasons why empathy is such an important quality in a UXer, and how to incorporate it into your everyday practice.

Why empathy is important for UXers

It starts with the cardinal rule of UX: you are not your user. UX is about how someone else feels about your product or brand. No matter how much you hope they’ll feel a certain way, how they actually feel is what matters. Developing the capacity for—and the practice of—empathizing with users is a great way to gain a deeper understanding of what your users want and need.

And while that’s easy to say, it takes some effort to do.

How to empathize with your users

Being empathetic isn’t just a switch you can turn on or off; it’s something you actually have to believe in and practice. Here’s how to get started.

Listen

Many of us think of empathy as putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes. While that’s partly true, there’s another important component: listening.

Indi Young does a great job expanding on this in her book, Practical Empathy. She notes that before we can begin to practice empathy, we first must do the legwork required to enable us to be empathetic. And that’s done through listening—really listening.

Remove distractions

Have you ever been on the phone with your mom while surfing the web and suddenly realized you had no idea what she’d been talking about for the past 10 minutes? Now imagine if that happened while you were reviewing feedback from a user test? While your mom might forgive you for spacing out and repeat her story, you won’t get that chance with your users and you’ll miss a valuable opportunity to understand them better.

Be fully present when conducting your research—especially when reviewing feedback. Commit your full attention to your user, whether they’re in the room with you or not. Being fully present and free of distractions helps you on what matters: your user.

Withhold judgement

It’s tempting to make assumptions about your users. Their age, income, location, and even accent only tell you a tiny bit about who they are on the surface. What this information doesn’t tell you is what your user is thinking and feeling, or why.

Having pre-conceived ideas about your users in any way, distances you from them and clouds your interpretation of their feedback. As much as possible, approach your users and their feedback with an open mind, and leave your own preferences, prejudices, and past experiences at the door.

Make empathy part of your process

After that uncomfortable day on the job back in high school, I took my mother’s insight to heart. I kept these tips in mind as I progressed through my career and still use them today to help me connect with my colleagues and clients. It isn’t always easy to do, but when I put the effort into it, the result is always a much better understanding of those I’m interacting with.

It’s easy to get caught up in a beautiful design or brilliant code. But if it’s created without understanding your user you risk creating something they don’t want or need. Empathy takes practice, and should be part of your core mission in all your UX endeavors.