The Role of Empathy in Understanding Users

December 4, 2017

Great leaders have been able to lead significant social revolutions because they understood people’s needs and recognized and worked to alleviate their pain and suffering. [1] Such leaders’ empathy toward people has brought revolutionary social changes. Likewise, people who have understood and empathized with users’ needs, frustrations, goals, and motivations have brought the world innovative solutions such as the telephone and Apple iPod. Apple came back from its near downfall by designing products that people need and want and delivering mind-blowing, innovative solutions.

In pursuit of innovation, more organizations have adopted design-thinking strategies, including leading companies such as IBM, Intuit, Airbnb, Microsoft, SAP, and Toshiba. Still, only a few companies have harnessed the power of innovation. If your organization wants to incorporate design thinking into its culture, you must start by being empathetic toward your users. Design thinking begins with developing a deep understanding of your users and the problem you are trying to solve for them. Only by developing empathy for your users, you can design truly breathtaking solutions for their problems.

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Empathy is a human quality, with which we are all born. When a new-born baby cries in response to the tears of another child, that’s empathy. Unfortunately, living in the world occludes this basic attribute in many people. So you need to develop empathy for your users to successfully implement a design-thinking process.

Developing Empathy for Your Users

There are three types of empathy:

  1. Reflective empathy—With this type of empathy, you respond to others’ emotions and motivations, as in the earlier example of a newborn baby.
  2. Emotional empathy—This form of empathy enables you to know and act on what others feel.
  3. Cognitive empathy—This is the ability to take the perspective of another person and accurately imagine that person’s experience. [2]

It is the skill of cognitive empathy that you need to master to understand users’ needs. For a UX professional, this basically means putting yourself in another person’s shoes. To master the quality of empathy, you must do the following:

  • Develop the virtue of patience—so you can listen for the user’s point of view.
  • Ideally, observe users in their natural environment.
  • When interacting with users, adopt a novice mindset so you can understand what your users are doing and how they are achieving their goals.
  • Let go of your initial assumptions and beliefs when observing users so you can perceive their actions with a novice mindset.
  • If doing user research is not possible, visualize yourself in the users’ environment or facing the same situations they face so you can gain a deeper understanding of them.
  • When ideating, resonate with your users’ subjective world so you can understand their needs better and generate ideas for meeting them.
  • Refrain from judging users.
  • Resist the urge to think of a fix for a problem during research. There is always a second-best solution, so concentrate only on empathic listening until you’ve completed your research.

Empathizing with your users lets you put aside your assumptions and gain unanticipated insights. No one can fully perceive another person’s experience, but try to get as close to users as possible so you can understand their needs.

Applying Empathy Through Design Thinking

Now, let’s look at what you should do to maximize your empathy for users in a design-thinking process.

Know Your Users

With whom do you want to empathize? The design-thinking process is all about knowing your target users and generating solutions for their problems. Get to know your target users through user research, market research, or stakeholder interviews. There are two categories of users:

  1. Extreme users—These users may be early adopters, rejecters, or power users.
  2. Mainstream users—These are the majority of users.

By focusing on extreme users, you may be able to identify the problems early adopters face—problems you might not have foreseen if you’d focused only on mainstream users. When engaging with extreme users, you might be astonished by the new perspectives they reveal or receive inspiration from their hacks and workarounds. Of course, it is important to empathize with the problems of mainstream users as well—not just extremes users.

Engage with Your Users

The best way to engage with your users directly is by conducting interviews with them in their working environment. While interviewing users, you must practice empathetic listening to develop a better understanding of their needs. Empathetic or active listening is an approach to listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding and trust.

Now, I’ll cover some guidelines that you should follow when interviewing users.

Avoid Asking Too Many Questions

Brainstorm with your team to determine what information you really need to gain from your interviews, and frame your questions accordingly before beginning your interviews. It is best to ask open-ended questions such as What, How, and Why questions. For example: “What does your typical day will look like?” “How would you tackle the problem you face?” “What about this product makes you trust it?” The purpose of asking such provocative questions is to help users narrate a story about their tasks, situation, and problems. Avoid asking too many probing questions during an interview session.

Be an Attentive Listener

Confirm that you are listening by nodding. Mind your body language when you speak or ask probing follow-up questions. Don’t forget to make eye contact. Engage users politely and invite them to say more by saying, “I’d like to know more about that.” [3]

Practice Mirroring

Mirroring means reflecting back what the user has said or is thinking or feeling, not just parroting back answers. [4] For example, in response to a user who said, “I felt very frustrated trying to find my car in the parking lot,” you might say, “It sounds like you are feeling very disappointed with your ability to find your vehicle, and it appears that you are feeling frustrated.” Reflection brings greater clarity and understanding of the subjective world of the user.

Empathize with Users Using Indirect Methods

When you don’t have the budget or time to conduct user research, how can you empathize with users? Sometimes a limited budget will prevent your conducting a contextual inquiry or interacting directly with users. However, there are other, more indirect methods you can use to empathize with users. [5]

You can ask users to create a live journal of their activities by taking photos or recording videos, then share their journals with you. You can empathize with users by analyzing their journals. However, this method requires a lot of interpretation, which could go wrong.

Another approach is to visualize the user’s situation on your own, trying to feel what the user would have felt in that situation. Gaining experience of their situation can help you to better understand the problems they face. Even better, try bodystorming so you can share their physical experience. You can do this by setting up a real-world environment with the proper artifacts to generate the feelings users would feel in the same situation.

Using analogies can also help you to develop new insights. By comparing one domain with another, you can innovate different solutions that would not necessarily come to mind when working within the usual constraints of your product’s domain. For example, high-traffic, time-consuming, data-center operations might be analogous to the process of maintaining vehicle traffic flow on roads. Comparing your problems to those of a different field and figuring out how people working in that field might tackle them could inspire unique solutions.


Is empathy necessary to solving all problems? Yes, but empathy alone cannot solve real-world problems. Empathy is essential to the design-thinking process. The ability to listen with empathy is the most important attribute of a design thinker. Design thinking can help your organization to cultivate creativity and devise innovative solutions to complex problems. Empathy helps you not only to find solutions to problems, but also to discover what problems exist. Empathy is also helpful in finding the correlations between analytics and qualitative data.

You can apply empathy across diverse interpersonal contexts and cultures, producing inestimable value by improving the quality of the products and services you deliver. 


[1] The RSA. “RSA ANIMATE: The Power of Outrospection.” YouTube, December 3, 2012. Retrieved August 1, 2017.

[2] Nebraska Children. “Empathy Is Essential: The Soft Skill That Engages the Whole Brain .” Nebraska Children, January 15, 2014. Retrieved August 1, 2017.

[3] Salem, Richard. “Empathetic Listening.” Beyond Intractability, July 2003. Retrieved August 1, 2017.

[4] Cohen, Elliot D. “How to Be Empathetic.” Psychology Today, May 17, 2015. Retrieved August 1, 2017.

[5] Gasparini, Andrea Alessandro. “Perspective and Use of Empathy in Design Thinking.” Think Mind, February 22, 2015. Retrieved August 1, 2017.

Interaction Designer at HCL Technologies Ltd.

Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India

Sampath KumarSampath has six years of experience in the digital world and is currently a UX designer who specializes in interaction design at HCL technologies. He creates compelling design solutions for Web and mobile applications by applying design-thinking methods. His expertise is in developing solutions by creating user flows and prototypes and conducting usability assessments. The product domains in which he has worked include elearning, enterprise resource planning (ERP), and networking. Sampath has always been interested in solving complex problems with pen and pixels. He is a Human Factors International Certified Usability Analyst.  Read More

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