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The Importance of Empathy in UX Design

In a landscape which focuses on “users”, “clicks” and “traffic”; who are we really designing for? The answer might have something to do with the very human ability of empathy.

What is empathy?

empathy

/ˈɛmpəθi/

noun

the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Empathy is the core human ability to understand people. At its broadest level, it is not classified as an emotion or feeling; rather an ability. This ability is what allows people to understand the feelings and emotions of other people. The awareness of other people’s emotions and thoughts allows you to gain an insight into how and why people emotionally respond to situations.

There are 3 types of empathy; cognitive, emotional and compassionate. Cognitive allows a person to know how an individual might think and feel, this is sometimes called perspective-taking. Emotional is described as when you physically feel along with an individual. Compassionate empathy is a type where we both understand and feel a person’s emotions, but are also driven to help that individual in certain cases.

We experience all 3 types of empathy on a day to day basis, whether that be with significant events such as grief or concern with a family member or smaller situations such as understanding a co-worker’s annoyance at a tight deadline.

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The main type of empathy that UX designers use is cognitive empathy. This type of empathy allows us to see things from other perspectives and get into the mindset of the target audience.

What does this mean for design?

At its very foundation UX (User eXperience) is built on empathy. When crafting an experience, we have to empathise with both the client and the end users to understand their specific requirements. UX is the art of empathising with both groups and creating an experience which marries up both their needs.

Often times people may not truly know what they need to meet their end goals. In the words of Henry Ford “If I had asked people what they wanted; they would have said ‘faster horses’.” Empathy allows designers to understand people’s motivations, putting themselves in their shoes and analyzing what is the best possible route to complete a task.

Why is empathy important in design?

Empathy in UX design is extremely important when creating a product that people will want and enjoy using. A lack will result in a product created without care for the end user. It may satisfy the requirements of the client (or vice versa the users) but will not meet the objectives of the users.

Designing for two polar opposite demographics is a situation where empathy is used to understand the needs of both audiences. For example, a product might need to be created that caters both to the wealthy and people under the poverty line. Both audiences have their own specific needs that UX designers need to understand to be able to build the necessary experience. Often times the needs of an audience is not as obvious as it may first seem. Taking the above example into account, the final audience of the wealthy may not be the 1% themselves, rather their PAs; similarly, with the audience under the poverty line, it may be support workers. Conducting research into the audience will allow a greater insight into who the product will need to target.

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How can UX designers be more empathetic?

Listen. Listen to users wants. Listen to client’s needs. Listening is more than taking a brief from a client, it is important to find and look at the bigger picture. How does this fit into the overall vision? What will this bring to the user and how will this integrate into their lives? Each user will have an end goal, a plan of what they need from your product. Speaking to potential users some might have a clear view of what they need, while others may not. Using the knowledge UX designers have, they are able to help forge and conceive the objectives of users.

A good practice to develop more empathy with your target audience is to immerse yourself in the product and the users through discovery and connection. Discovering how the final audience works and understanding their motivations allows the designer to explore which parts of a journey cause stress and frustrations, how that particular user may accomplish their task and how the product will fit into their day to day routine.

"In a landscape which focuses on “users”, “clicks” and “traffic”; who are we really designing for? The answer might have something to do with the very human ability of empathy."

How have we used empathy in our projects?

The UX/UI team often creates user personas for projects. These personas outline the common user types that the product will be used by. We identify the different points that this particular persona has. These include their main motivation, their drivers, mindset, pain points and content requirements. This gives us an idea of how this person goes about the task at hand. We create multiple personas as there are obviously many different real-life personas each with their own motivations.

Using these personas allow us to target certain common individuals and tailor their experience to best suit them, reducing their pain points and creating an experience that will satisfy their needs.

Another way in which we try to connect with users more is to conduct accessibility labs. In these we can create a multitude of designs and create a rough prototype of the final website. People are brought in to use the site while a member of the team sits with them. They are asked questions about the site they are using and from this we can gain an insight in what a real user thinks and how they react to potential designs. This unbiased view helps us understand what a user thinks and feels and how we can improve to make their experience as smooth as possible.

In closing

Empathy sits at the heart of UX design. Everything a designer does goes hand in hand with empathy as ultimately the goal is to create an experience that people enjoy and find easy to use. Using the knowledge a UX designer has about their craft and the ability to connect with and understand people allows for solutions tailored that meet both the client and the user’s needs. UX is more than designing websites, it’s about connecting with people.