UX Professionals Are People, Too: The Practice of Self-Empathy

May 8, 2023

As we move through 2023, we can easily compare how the world looks today with what it looked like three years ago, at the beginning of the pandemic. Fortunately, lockdowns and stay-at-home orders are now things of the past. Vaccines and booster shots are widely available and are generally preventing serious illness from Covid-19. Restaurants, stores, other businesses, and office buildings have reopened, and many of the emergency measures that the government enacted during the pandemic have lifted.

But even as we resume our activities from the before times, our feelings about our world might not so easily return to normal. Everything in our lives somehow seems more complicated now. While we might welcome having the options of dining out or seeing a film in a theater, we also might be feeling uneasy about the economy, politics, or worrying about escalating global conflicts.

Caring about people is a core part of any UX or usability professional’s job. But our capacity for empathy is not infinite. Plus, our ability to replenish our energy when we encounter adversity or uncertainty in our lives might look somewhat different today than it did before.

Champion Advertisement
Continue Reading…

My Pandemic Experience

Having lived alone for the duration of the pandemic and worked remotely for more than three years, I often felt isolated from my friends and family. I’d moved to a new city shortly before the pandemic began, so many in my social circle were in different states. At the same time, I’ve battled a sense of stuckness and the most persistent case of cabin fever in my life. During the lockdown period, opportunities to make new acquaintances or form new friendships became nonexistent.

All of my activities, whether relating to work, my personal life, or my hobbies, were happening within the same space—one that felt increasingly small. I also experienced a layoff, lost my grandmother to Covid-19, and went through the process of selling a home. Upheaval seemed to be the only constant in my life, and I struggled to navigate my way through demanding circumstances that had no easy answers. I often felt I had to meet these challenges on my own.

Creating a Journey Map

During a moment of introspection—I’ve certainly had no shortage of time for thinking—I asked myself: What would you do for a client in this situation? The answer was immediate and simple: I’d create a journey map. I’d make a concrete artifact to illustrate experiences that have sometimes seemed abstract. So I did just that. It felt slightly radical to turn a UX tool into a life-management tactic and spend my time and attention documenting my own experiences. To focus the empathy that my work demands on myself.

When making this journey map, I created five separate tracks: one each for my professional life, personal life, health, family relationships, and world events. For each track, I captured key events and significant feelings—the highs and the lows. Completing this journey-mapping activity was surprisingly satisfying. Applying a template to my own experiences enabled me to articulate what had previously felt nebulous. Plus, seeing the different tracks laid out in tandem and looking at the events and feelings collectively gave me a way to understand a set of complex and, at times, difficult circumstances.

My Insights

In addition to giving me the satisfaction of being able to express the feelings that had been fermenting within me, creating the journey map provided me with useful insights. Once I had a more complete picture of my situation, I was able to reflect on what could make things better. After all, this is one of the most meaningful aspects of UX design.

I could see, as I had not been able to do previously, that all of the various facets of my life rarely moved in the same direction at the same time. For example, in my career, I experienced an upward trajectory while I simultaneously underwent moving into a new house. While both of these experiences were welcome and exciting changes, they were also disruptive. I also recognized that some health-related events were more than just inconveniences because they had persisted and disrupted my quality of life. As a result, I am putting greater focus on my well-being, both mental and physical. I’m getting more comfortable with saying No. I’m putting aside some time for me—to exercise regularly, eat mindfully, and take breaks when I need them.

Practicing Self-Empathy

I’ve since revisited my journey map and have even shared it with a few close associates, which has brought me to this conclusion: UX professionals should seriously consider doing for ourselves what we regularly do for others.

We can apply our empathy to ourselves. We should take time to understand our needs, wants, and desires. We could contemplate what we want to achieve in our lives and identify the obstacles, or painpoints, that potentially stand in our way.

Sharing Empathy

Recently, I discussed these ideas about self-empathy with a colleague over brunch. Once I had finished describing what applying the practice of self-empathy to ourselves might look like, she looked at me and said: “And for each other.” Of course, she was right. She is right.

As UX professionals, we often reserve our empathy for the users of our products and services and perhaps the stakeholders with whom we work as well. But empathy is not simply a lens for viewing others or a kindness that we can show ourselves. Empathy is a gift that we can give to our fellow UX professionals and our colleagues in other disciplines with whom we work when creating these products.

A supportive design practice is an empowering design practice. It is within us to model the behaviors we want to see in our workplaces. For more practical suggestions on how to achieve this ideal, read the Harvard Business Review article “Model Kindness on Your Team,” which offers suggestions for how you can model the practice of kind behaviors in the workplace.

Maybe, just maybe, the power of UX design can do more than just point the way toward what our teams should work on. Perhaps its power is showing how our teams can work together. 

Independent Consultant

Pittsburgh, Pensylvania, USA

Amy ArdenAmy loves working with organizations to solve complicated problems. She believes that every day is a chance to use design to make something a little bit—or a lot!—better. Over her career, she’s worked with nonprofits, federal agencies, professional-services firms, and Fortune 500 retailers. Her favorite projects include designing a chatbot to help provide information to the public about opioid abuse and creating an exhibition Web site and social-media channels for the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare materials. Amy enjoys talking shop and learning from other UX professionals. In addition to writing for UXmatters, she has presented at several conferences, including Customer Contact Week 2019, IA Summit 2018, and UXPA DC 2017.  Read More

Other Articles on Soft Skills

New on UXmatters