Developing Empathy in Designers

March 5, 2018

In my previous article, “Empathy and the Art of Product Design,” I explored the notion that empathy should be at the core of design. I talked about how product design is not just a mechanical procedure for solving a problem. The process is more complex than meets the eye. Creating products and services that delight the customer requires a combination of fact-based expertise and creativity. Solving problems and creating workable solutions also demands the ability to empathize with the user. It is a given that companies want to employ product designers with a certain level of expertise, but creating the most effective designs also requires soft skills such as empathy and emotional intelligence. Continuing that discussion in this article, let’s turn our attention to empathy in the individual product designer.

What is empathy exactly—a personality trait or an acquired skill? What does it mean to show empathy for the user? How can we infuse empathy into the design process? Let’s take a closer look at how we can use empathy in the design process to connect on a deeper level, improving the product design and, thus, the customer experience.

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Empathy: Personality Trait or Acquired Skill?

The Oxford definition of empathy is clear: “Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” But what does that really mean, and why is empathy so important to designing solutions that actually work? How does one apply empathy during the design process?

Some people believe empathy is a personality trait—a kind of born-with-it talent. In many ways, this is true. Empathy develops as a consequence of who we are and how we grow up. What we learn from our peers and family members plays a big role in shaping who we become as adults.

However, there is strong evidence that empathy is also an acquired skill, or something that can be taught. The Institute of Design at Stanford agrees—even authoring an Empathy Field Guide to teach students how to empathize through “immersion, observation, and engagement.” The Empathy Field Guide suggests that, through observation and interviews, we can build a picture of customers’ motivations based on what they say, do, think, and feel. Observation engenders understanding. You can go from making concrete observations in context to thinking about the emotions and motives at play. Conversations, or interviews, are at the core of engagement. This is where brands have an opportunity to build rapport and garner stories from their customers.

Examining Empathy in the Design Process

So far, we’ve considered empathy as something designers either have naturally or that we can instill as a trait in our team members. Now let’s talk about what empathy actually looks like once it exists. What does it mean to have empathy in the design process?

Simply put, design thinkers are most likely trying to solve other people’s or a particular group of people’s problems. To design for others, empathy is necessary so you can understand who the users are and what is important to them.

A truly empathetic solution to a problem takes all of these variables into account. Empathy is more than just thinking about what the users are doing or what would be easier for them. Empathetic design dives deep into users’ emotions to identify exactly what they are going throughout during their journey.

In grad school, one problem we worked on was creating a museum experience for the disabled. My team decided to design a cultural exhibit for the blind. To fully understand what it meant to have vision impairment, we took turns being blindfolded while trying to go about our daily routines. This may sound silly—and it was definitely challenging in the beginning—but, in just a few minutes, we were able to gain a much deeper understanding of the unique challenges those who cannot see face every day. We were able to connect with them emotionally and understand that some things, while they are mundane to most of us, are frustrating for people with limited or no vision.

Not all designers will need to design a museum exhibit for the blind. But this experience perfectly illustrates how to apply empathy in design by truly understanding what it means to be the user.

Let’s look at another example. Say we want to design a great experience for receiving and signing a digital document. Forms, for example, are everywhere, and everyone uses them. Organizations—from industries to governments to healthcare—work with forms for recruitment, data collection, and onboarding. More and more workers are turning their mobile devices into a serious business tool, so it’s important that any app or solution makes it easy for them to take their work with them so they can work on the go. A good design solution recognizes that many people signing documents today are likely viewing them on a smartphone. Being able to open a document on a tiny screen and quickly look it over before signing it using your finger is ideal. As a designer, you get to this point by understanding who your users are and what they’re trying to accomplish.

Although this example shows empathy toward the user, I would argue that it’s not enough just to build something great. Going further, you may realize that the user is commuting by train. Putting yourself in this situation—literally taking the train and trying to complete the task—helps you to understand the user’s state of mind during the experience. Maybe the train is crowded, and the person is distracted or feeling anxious. Perhaps the jostling of the train makes touching targets on the screen challenging. Are there choices you can make during UX design or the development of the app’s functionality that can put the user at ease and help him to accomplish his desired task in fewer steps and with less mistakes? These are the types of questions the empathetic designer should ask.

In Summary

Now, a wide range of people from around the world use technology every day—each with their own cultural, mental, physical, and situational factors that impact how they interact with products. It is critical that UX designers continually foster a deeper understanding of how products can work best for users. So, whether empathy is a natural trait or something you work to instill in your team, it is the most important driver of good design. Empathy helps designers understand and discover the latent emotions and needs of the customers for whom they are designing a product.

By approaching design problems with a high level of empathy and considering the different contexts, personas, and perceptions in which your product will be used, you’ll develop a stronger sense of what you should design. As a result, you’ll have a stronger urge to focus on what really matters to the user and gain nuanced insights into what user actions you should make easily accessible and emphasize in the user interface. 

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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