Is Empathy Missing From Your UX?

Are you truly meeting your users’ needs? Here’s how to design solutions that do.
Headshot of Jen Walsh
Jen Walsh
Expert Contributor
April 13, 2021
Updated: April 14, 2021
Headshot of Jen Walsh
Jen Walsh
Expert Contributor
April 13, 2021
Updated: April 14, 2021

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. When it comes to design, empathy really means that every aspect of what you’re designing is completely human-centric. It’s not about your company or your own wishes — it’s entirely about the end users’ needs.

But empathy in design is sometimes overlooked. Here’s why it should be emphasized, and how to cultivate it.

 

How Empathy Should Shape Design

Let’s start with an example. Your product owner is proposing a new feature for an app that would change the user experience. You know from previous user research that users are happy with the current app, but you see how this new feature could bring innovation and positive change.

In order to move forward, you must do further user research. You need a better understanding of how this new feature idea will be received by users, whether it meets their needs, and if it will move them toward — or away from — their goals.

It’s also important to think about your end user as a whole person with a work life and a personal life. Even if your product is meant to save the user time while at work, for instance, designing with empathy means you will still keep in mind the other parts of that person’s life as you consider how they’ll interact with your product.

Here’s a hypothetical scenario: Let’s say your project management software is designed to shut down other applications that may be distracting during set hours. But based on your user research, you know that parents will want to make sure they’re still able to receive emails or text messages from their kids’ schools or babysitters.

Designing with empathy means leveraging your upfront research and including a workaround, so those users can rest assured they can be reached if needed while still enjoying a largely distraction-free workday.

 

The Right User Is Required to Get Empathy Right

Companies often say they know their users. Many times, though, the information they have is mostly based on conjecture or internal conversations. Or, they’ve skipped important steps because they don’t want to invest the time and money into proper research.

The result? They don't know their users as well as they think they do. They may know who they are, but know little about what drives their behavior.

If this is the case, these companies may indeed already design with empathy. If they’re doing so for the wrong user, however, this empathy is misplaced. Unless they truly know the right user, as well as their goals and needs, empathy won’t yield results.

For instance, think about an app created to help working parents monitor their kids’ schoolwork and activities. User research would tell you that they are likely juggling several schedules. Not highlighting a scheduling conflict in your app is likely to be incredibly frustrating. Truly knowing your users means your design can truly meet their needs.

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How to Get Complete User Insights

So, you’re worried you may not know your user as well as you thought. Where do you start? You need a mix of qualitative and quantitative research in order to create a complete picture. Start by interviewing your users and getting a firsthand view into their day-to-day routines, goals, needs, and experiences with similar products.

Then broaden your interview targets and interview other people who aren’t your users. For example, my company and I recently worked with a school that wanted to increase enrollment through a website redesign. We first wanted to find out what was important to parents who were in the market for a school for their children. So, we talked to two groups to learn more: The first included parents of kids who attended the school, and the second included parents whose kids did not yet attend the school. This helped us to gather information that wasn’t myopic or unfairly skewed.

Once you’ve done your qualitative research, it’s important to validate it with quantitative data. When my team worked with the school mentioned above, we followed up our interviews by gathering data from the school about demographics of students enrolled, enrollment trends, and so forth. This helped us to view our qualitative data with additional context and clarity.

There are a plethora of ways to do this, but some of the most effective ones are surveys and market research. You can commission surveys yourself or use a third party for this. You can also find a lot of market research for free online, but you may need to pay for very specific research.

After you’ve taken these steps, you will have a much clearer idea of who your users really are and what really matters to them. From there, every design question can be filtered through that lens. Cultivating empathy is not just about gathering information. It’s about how you use the data to design solutions that really work for the user.

Expert Contributors

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