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Empathy and the Art of Product Design

December 4, 2017

Product design is more than a series of simple steps or a mechanical process for solving a problem. In fact, when done well, product design is something of a mystery. Solving extraordinary problems and creating customer-centric products and services that people want and need is a valuable skill that requires a unique blend of fact-based expertise and creativity.

Companies are starting to recognize that great design involves far more than just providing solutions for functional or business needs. Design taps into the human experience in new, unexpected ways. So, while expertise is essential, product designers are most effective when they also possess soft skills such as empathy and emotional intelligence.

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For example, the popular ridesharing service Uber is starting to rethink the design process in an effort to better meet customer expectations. When Uber VP of Design Michael Gough was asked how design can deliver a better customer experience for a recent Fast Company article, his answer was clear:

“The core of design is empathy. That’s the starting point no matter what. That will always be how you address any product challenge. … The next big step is to become a company that’s really, really good at connecting with people and people’s needs.”—Michael Gough

At Adobe, we frequently observe the interplay between expertise and creativity in design as we challenge ourselves to improve the way our users consume and work with digital documents and signatures through design.

Balancing the Scientific and Artistic Aspects of Design

While there is no single right or wrong way to design, coming up with great design solutions almost always involves two discrete elements: art and science. User research is the science that fuels the application of practical knowledge. But the art behind great design results from identifying with the user in a deeper, more meaningful way.

Building solutions that fix people’s everyday problems—for example, using esignatures or collaborating on digital documents—demands technical know-how, but also the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. In the art-science matrix that is product design, technical expertise and ingenuity work together to turn a promising concept into something great. But what role does empathy—the ability to step into someone else’s shoes, see through the eyes of the user, and feel what the user feels—really play in the process?

Memorable art is grounded in the expression of human emotions. For centuries, painters, sculptors, and musicians have found inspiration in their own suffering and melancholy and that of others. Through introspection and by projecting oneself into others’ struggles, it is possible to capture the essence of people’s emotions—a foundational element of inspirational art.

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Developing Empathy Naturally

Empathy is a critical factor in designing great products. Identifying with users on an emotional level and seeing through their eyes enables you to recognize the nuances of problems and solutions and take an experience to a whole different level.

As product designers, we’re taught to think about users first, before considering the mechanics of engineering. We try not to think about how we might use a product because we likely do not represent an actual user group. Instead, we try to imagine or empathize with how our users might identify with a solution.

Extensive research and other scientific methods often guide empathy, but sometimes it develops simply from talking to users. For instance, conversations with Adobe Document Cloud users have helped us to better understand what they are thinking about when they send documents to stakeholders for feedback or send out digital forms for others’ signatures. Is it secure? What works? What doesn’t?

In the ever-evolving world of smartphones and tablets, what are users likely to expect when they view a document on the go? By immersing ourselves completely in the world of users and walking through their daily lives, we develop empathy, gain clarity, and feel the pain they experience. But how can you do this effectively? How do you know whether you are succeeding? This brings us to the role of science in the creative design process.

Building a Bridge Creative Design, Scientific Methods, and Business Outcomes

Conscientious product designers strive to make better products, but at the end of the day, a product has to work and help users complete their tasks more efficiently. Scientific methods and technical expertise help us to accurately define the problem we need to solve, work through alternative solutions, and come to a practical decision to deliver business value. They also help us to test our hypotheses, analyze the results of our research, and discover what is working and what does not. Data and analytics inform the user experience in many ways.

In the near future, we’ll see more and more companies investigating how they can endow machines with more human-like empathy. Technology is advancing a rapid rate and is helping us to discover solutions for renewable energy, disease prevention, and disaster recovery. But, when it comes to human challenges such as employee/customer satisfaction and engagement, there is an opportunity for technology to do much more. For example, great strides in artificial intelligence and natural-language processing are helping products such as Siri and Alexa to tap into the complexity of human emotions. It will be interesting to see where science and technology can complement designers’ ability to incorporate empathy into their work. Will technology help make the design process easier and more efficient or will it deter designers from naturally infusing empathy into the products and solutions they create? We’ll see.

Science is a key element that can help product designers bridge the gap between a creative design process, solving a problem for users, delivering a product that works, and helping your product team achieve its business goals.

Final Thoughts

Successful product design depends on many things—whether you’re designing a digital document that people can easily share with clients and coworkers or facilitating a safe, convenient ride across town. But nothing is more vital to the success of a creative design process than having the unique ability to empathize with users. It all comes down to understanding users’ needs and translating their feelings into meaningful product insights. Great product designers who change the way people interact with technology are artists who know exactly when to apply science, data, and analytics. 

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Design Manager at Adobe

San Francisco, California, USA

Vignesh RameshAs a design manager, Vignesh strives to provide design leadership throughout the process of building a product. He is passionate about every aspect of the user’s end-to-end experience, knowing that the product experience starts as early as the marketing page on which the user learns about the product, not just when the user first launches the product. Vignesh believes that great design happens when there is balance between empathy and the use of scientific methods during the design process. He holds a Master of Science in Human Computer Interaction from Indiana University.  Read More

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