In the design world, it’s all about creating delightful, intuitive experiences. This is much easier said than done! For a technology company, there’s a lot to consider when looking at the difference between:

  • The “Why” - What are the business reasons for creating a new product?
  • And the “How” - How are the end users going to perceive and interact with the solution?

Rising to the occasion to sort this mess out are the designers! They are responsible for integrating all the parts: design, branding, function, and usability. As Don Norman, inventor of the term “user experience” (UX), said:

“No product is an island. A product is more than the product. It is a cohesive, integrated set of experiences. Think through all of the stages of a product or service - from initial intentions through final reflections, from first usage to help, service, and maintenance. Make them all work together seamlessly.”

The high level responsibilities of a designer boil down to being the voice of and advocate for the end user. There are many techniques that designers use to ensure a product provides an amazing UX. For example, creating wireframes, the foundation of every successful project, helps make it possible for product teams to go out and start getting user feedback from the start.

What is Empathy?

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what someone else is experiencing from within their frame of reference. It’s the capacity to place oneself in another's position. We all have the capability to practice it. Often confused with empathy is sympathy. Sympathy is more about how you feel about something.

One easy way to remember the difference is that sympathy is about how you feel for someone while empathy is more about feeling in someone.

Why is Empathy Important in Design?

‘Understand’ is the first step in the design process (Understand, Build, Measure, Learn). Understanding our users and the problem they’re facing is key!

  • The realities they’re facing
  • Their desires
  • Their roles
  • The interactions within their environment
  • Emotional and physical needs

All of this helps us better understand the impact that the problem has on their lives.

To accomplish this, designers go off and do “Empathic Research”. Empathic Research is not concerned with facts about people at this point. If a designer asked you, “Why do you prefer to stay at home on a Friday night and watch a movie rather than go on a run?”,  they would be less concerned with your actual response. Instead, they’d be interested in understanding what your response means. For example, what does your response to that question mean for your motivations

Sorting out the differences between what a user says and what they mean is incredibly hard to do. It’s very subjective, but good designers have a knack for it! A good designer becomes an expert in the things that they design for. They’ll know all of the jargon, the ins and outs, and so become specialists of the field and its users.

Empathic Research Helps Test Assumptions.

A few ways to accomplish this research are:

  • Assume a beginners mindset
  • Ask ‘What?’, ‘How?’, and ‘Why?’
  • Ask 'The 5 Whys' - Also referred to as the Ishikawa or Fishbone Method, the idea is that after you ask ‘why’ 5 times, you’ll get to the root of a problem. It helps users understand themselves. For example, if a user says they, “don’t like the red button,” asking why helps you understand the reasoning behind what they say.
  • Conduct interviews with empathy - LISTEN, basically
  • Engage with extreme users or ‘power users’  that are embedded in the project
  • Capture user stories and share
  • Create journey maps

What Happens When You Don’t Do Empathic Research?

The US Air Force went against this design principle when they made a choice in 1926 that would come to haunt them two decades later. In designing the first ever cock pit, engineers were tasked with creating something that would fit all their pilot’s needs. Perhaps taking this challenge a bit too literally, they opted to measure the dimensions (height, weight, leg length, etc.) of hundreds of pilots and take the average of each category.

While not an ideal way to design even in 1926 pilots, the blunder really became exposed when 17 pilots crashed in one day in the 1940’s. Usually crashes were chalked up to user error, but the frequency led to an internal inquiry. Simply put, it was discovered that the “average pilot” in 1926 was quite a bit different than the pilots of the current day. Far from empathetic, this “flaw of averages” was putting pilots at risk on a daily basis. What followed was the development of adjustable settings so that the cockpit and other pilot gear was truly made for all the end users and not just for some <looks left, looks right> Average Joe.

I’ll show myself out...

Empathy in Solving Business Problems

Dad jokes aside, empathy also comes in handy when considering potential clients. Long before any work begins on designing and developing a solution to meet their needs, there are few things that we as product people have to account for:

  • To start, there has to be a desire to solve a problem. It’s one thing for a CEO to know they have a problem. It’s another for them to have the urgency and desire to find a solution.
  • If the desire is there, then there is a discussion around viability. Is there a capital available to get this solved? If not, where and how can it be attained?
  • Lastly, is feasibility. Does a solution to their problem already exist or do we have to build it ourselves? The buy or build question can be a challenging one.

To get an empathic understanding of someone we must listen, listen, and listen. Our Chief Design Officer, Vicky, said that listening was her number one recommendation to anyone starting off their career in design.

So keep calm and practice empathy, everyone!

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