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The Role of a Chief Empathy Officer

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A column by Janet M. Six
March 22, 2021

This month in Ask UXmatters, our expert panel looks at the role of a Chief Empathy Officer. This role is currently emerging within several organizations worldwide. Our panel discusses what a Chief Empathy Officer does, as well as what the need for this role says about an organization.

Our experts acknowledge that proving an organization’s empathy to its customers is not the work of only one person. Empathy must to be part of the organization’s culture. Conducting user research is actually a powerful way for an organization to show empathy to customers.

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Each month in my column Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts answers our readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to: [email protected].

The following experts have contributed answers to this month’s edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Keelin Billue—UX Researcher at Saggezza
  • Michael Lai—Senior Vice President and Dean of X Thinking Institute at TANG UX
  • Gavin Lew—Managing Partner at Bold Insight
  • Daniel Szuc—Principal and Cofounder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd.
  • Josephine Wong—Principal and Cofounder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd.

Q: What is the role of a Chief Empathy Officer and how does it fit with UX design?—from a UXmatters reader

“To be honest, I struggle with the term and concept of a Chief Empathy Officer,” replies Michael. “Typically, for a C-level title, the person holding the title is responsible for the output of a major functional organization. For example, the Chief Financial Officer is responsible for finance. The Chief Operations Officer is responsible for operations. The Chief Marketing Office is responsible for marketing. The Chief Technology Officer is responsible for technology. The Chief Experience Officer is responsible for User Experience. There are a variety of other C-level titles, but you get the idea.

“In each of these cases, the chief officer is responsible for an important part of the larger organization. Together with a department that is dedicated to their function, this person has primary responsibility for creating the policy for and managing and measuring this function of the organization. However, this team doesn’t manage this function in isolation or in a silo, but works together with other parts of the organization. Based on this understanding, a Chief Empathy Officer, along with a dedicated department, would be primarily responsible for creating the policy for and managing and measuring empathy as a major function of the organization. However, is empathy a function or output of the organization? I do not believe that it is.”

Developing Organizational Empathy

“Suggesting that an organization requires a Chief Empathy Officer might indicate that empathy is lacking across the people, practices, habits, and behaviors of an organization’s culture,” respond Dan and Jo. “Sure, one person could be a champion for empathy—assuming that would be a good place to start. But every organization should allow its employees to take a pause at regular intervals, enabling them to reflect on the interactions and relationships between people at work. One way to do this—and gain empathy, understanding, and compassion for others, while demonstrating your interest in them—is to start by sharing stories, relating to both the personal and people’s work, and to determine your best practices at work.

“The processes and transactional nature of delivering our work often obscure an organization’s best practices. This can lead to sleepwalking. When we record and track our best practices on what we call practice cards, including exercises for people to practice in different contexts where these practices are applicable, this can help create an empathic connection that shows why a practice is actually necessary in that context. We refer to this as connect and contextualize. A Chief Empathy Officer could certainly create and lead spaces in which this could happen. However, it is preferable to encourage leadership and shape a healthy culture across the organization—not through just one person.

“The framing of ‘Defeating the Disease of 20th Century Management’ helps us stay on target as we speak about shaping healthy cultures to make meaningful work.”

Cultivating Empathy for Your Customers

“Empathy is one of the core values and practices of UX design—and, hopefully, for your whole organization,” answers Michael. “Therefore, empathy should not be the primary responsibility of just one person such as a Chief Empathy Officer and a dedicated department. Instead, the whole organization should embody and practice empathy. While empathy is one of several values and practices that an organization embodies, it isn’t a function or output.

“Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not arguing that empathy isn’t important. It is. What I’m questioning here is where and how an organization should embody empathy. At TANG and the X Thinking Institute, we believe that, in the age of the experience economy, brands need a Chief Experience Officer (CXO) who has the mandate and power to create value for people and the organization through creating holistic experiences. This includes experiences for people outside the organization such as customers and users, as well as people inside the organization—that is, the employees. Empathy is a core practice that is essential in defining the strategy, delivery, management, and measurement of the user experiences that are the outputs of an organization.

“But is empathy enough? I don’t think so. We should focus more on compassion. But this is a discussion for another time.”

“Traditionally, CEO has been the acronym for Chief Executive Officer. Today, this acronym has another meaning: Chief Empathy Officer,” says Keelin. “As global and US-specific crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic, police brutality, racial injustice, and the resulting civil unrest have unfolded, we are increasingly calling on CEOs and other executive leaders to speak about or even take a stance on social and moral issues. Taking on this new responsibility requires a company’s leadership to answer the public’s anger or outrage with empathetic words and true solutions. You can gain the knowledge to create true solutions only by really listening to both your employees and your customers.

"The Chief Empathy Officer and User Experience have a complementary and symbiotic relationship—both in terms of creating a customer-centered ethos, as well as developing successful products that meet real needs. While a Chief Empathy Officer provides company-wide leadership and is typically responsible for the company’s external messaging, it is a UX team’s duty to conduct research, analyze its findings, and design products by consulting with users and empathizing with customer feedback and needs throughout the process.

“In the interest of delivering to customers, the Chief Empathy Officer must champion User Experience across the company to ensure the improvement of UX maturity and, ultimately, the organization’s reliance on User Experience. In return, the UX team provides a customer-centered focus and fosters a company culture that relies on empathy and understanding to guide all product-development work. In the end, the Chief Empathy Officer and the UX team are working toward the same goal: truly empathizing with and understanding users and customers and providing solutions that enhance all facets of the customer and brand experience.”

The Importance of Conducting User Research

“While it is wonderful that these titles and roles are emerging, as with design thinking, empathy is worthless if it is devoid of the foundation of research,” remarks Gavin. “All too often, a lack of time or budget to do research thwarts a team’s good intentions. It might seem easier to express an opinion rather than to base your decisions on research. We must evolve the idea of design thinking to become evidence-based design thinking, reinforcing the reality that the feedback of actual users, not one person’s opinion, frames empathy. A UX team’s operating without a foundation of research is not different from a Chief Creative Officer’s mandating certain design solutions because he ‘knows’ what customers want.” 

Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixDr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research. Janet is the Managing Editor of UXmatters.  Read More

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