Empathy and UX: You Can’t Have One Without the Other

June 11, 2018

If there’s one term that’s front-and-center in business right now, it’s empathy. Empathy is capturing headlines and executives’ attention alike—especially as it relates to a company’s overall mission and customer service. But there’s a key aspect of business for which empathy is a cornerstone and that’s User Experience—the science of heightening the quality of your customers’ interactions with and appreciation of your product. The focus of User Experience is on gaining a deep understanding of users—what they need, what they value, and their abilities and limitations.

Before we dive into how User Experience and empathy power one another, let’s take a look at each of them separately to understand why they’re essential to business.

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Empathy and Business

The Webster dictionary definition for empathy is telling:

“The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”

In short, empathy is about possessing a heightened social intelligence. While, for some people, empathy is a natural gift, it can also be learned, practiced, and perfected—like most things in life. All that empathy requires is an openness to others’ needs, wants, and desires, which is best acquired byputting yourself in others’ shoes.” In business, the others are your customers.

In the digital age, with so many technical barriers and automations in place, all too many organizations forego direct communication with their customers. While businesses are becoming more aware of the critical problems this disengagement sparks, they’re often too slow in catching on. It’s more important than ever to encourage personal connections with customers to truly understand their motivations, behaviors, and goals.

A prime example of a company that has embraced empathy to deliver an exceptional user experience is Starbucks. The company created their ordering and payment app to replicate the friendly, personalized atmosphere of their physical stores, which customers love and appreciate. More importantly, they paid attention to the intrinsic needs and goals of their user base and provided them with an engaging tool that addressed them effectively. The company invested heavily in extensive usability testing before launching the app, whose success proves that testing paid off. Their customers are happy.

The Modern User Experience

User Experience is more than just design and programming; it incorporates a crucial aspect of the business-to-consumer relationship: psychology. Businesses are becoming more aware of the importance of User Experience—to which the industry growth rate attests. The profession of User Experience is expected to grow from 1 million people today to 100 million by 2050. Prior to the more widespread embrace of User Experience, product managers who didn’t have the time, resources, or complex knowledge to pursue UX practices beyond a superficial level have often shouldered the duties of various UX specialists. Product and business processes were all about whether something worked as designed—paying minimal attention to a product’s overall usability and disregarding whether it provided a delightful user experience. In turn, businesses suffered.

With a formal UX program in place, UX experts can work alongside product managers to make data-backed product decisions. The result is happy, empowered customers who can’t live without a product. Ultimately, great products garner new interest, higher customer retention, and brand loyalty. (Apple is a great example of this. Their products generally offer such superior user experiences that the company reaps extreme loyalty from its dedicated customers.)

Great user experiences deliver a healthier bottom line. According to Forrester, every dollar invested in User Experience brings $100 in return. A return on investment (ROI) of 9,900 percent is hard to argue with.

A Match Made in Heaven

A successful UX program revolves around empathy. There is more than one way for businesses to showcase this goal. The most popular methods of driving empathy include the following:

  • interviews—This is the most personal tactic. Talking to users one on one counteracts people’s tendency to make assumptions about users’ wants, needs, goals, and painpoints.
  • contextual inquiries—Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu’s famous adage “Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted” hits home in terms of UX research. Developing a deep understanding of the user is invaluable. Making on-site visits to customer locations provides the opportunity to spend time with users in their natural environment. By spending time with users in person, you can see how they use a product, why they take the actions they do, understand their environment, and take into account all of the behavioral traits that make each user unique.
  • usability studies—A product team can evaluate a product by observing users and assessing their ability to successfully complete their tasks within a controlled environment. They can also learn about users’ attitudes, behaviors, and overall response to the product’s features and functionality.

Although there are various UX research methods that can promote user empathy, the critical time for their implementation is at the beginning of the product-development cycle. Incorporating your learnings from UX research at the onset of a project allows you to make adjustments before engineers start their work, enabling you to catch costly errors long before a new product or feature is released. Once the engineering team begins their work, everyone can be confident that the effort they’re investing will pay off and deliver meaningful business results. Simply put, companies that prioritize and invest in UX research save money and earn greater profits.

While technology can provide solutions to most of life’s problems, it has also created an abundance of options for customers. This means competition in the marketplace is fierce, and customers know it. Forrester confirms that we’re in “the age of the customer.” Customers now expect the technologies with which they interact—whether mobile apps, Web sites, or SaaS (Software as a Service) platforms—to provide easy, stress-free, enjoyable user experiences every time. By understanding and empathizing with your customers from the beginning, you will ensure you’re making the right decisions early on, while saving money, earning profits, and, ultimately, empowering your users. 

Senior User Researcher at Outreach

Seattle, Washington, USA

Andreas HuebnerAndreas is a champion of the customer and ensures products meet the needs of users while delighting them at every turn. He holds a Master of Science in Human Computer Interaction and has years of experience in all aspects of user research, including study design, qualitative and quantitative research methods, data analysis, and delivering actionable recommendations to his product teams and stakeholders. Andreas is always looking for ways to improve user-research strategy and process, while staying tuned to the latest trends and developments in the field. In addition to his deep love of User Experience, Andreas is passionate about cooking, international travel, hiking, and hauling his kid around behind his bicycle.  Read More

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