No empathy? No optimal User Experience!

A few weeks ago we talked about eliminating the self-blame within the user experience. Empathy lies at the base of this. By putting yourself in the shoes of your user and really knowing and feeling how he wants to interact with your product, you are able to eliminate the self-blame and make the experience more pleasant for him. But showing empathy is not something we all do that often, it’s even a skill not all of us possess but you definitely can practice.

What is empathy?

Let’s zoom in on this subject. Empathy is not to be confused with sympathy. Empathy is the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation (based on Cambridge). Where sympathy is just an expression of understanding and care for someone else’s suffering.

I shall give a tragic example to explain the difference. When a grandparent of an acquaintance died I showed my sympathy, I expressed my condolences and said that time will heal the negative feelings and that he had to think about the positive memories.

But when the grandmother of my partner died I stood there sobbing with him, I met the women once very briefly but I knew how it felt to loose someone. I let myself feel his pain because it wasn’t hard to imagine how he would feel.

This is the difference, in the case of my acquaintance I also knew how it felt but I didn’t want to dig deeper and provoke any emotions. So I kept it superficial.

This is an extreme example but I think you understand the difference now. Why is empathy important? Because it’s a form of deep communication, to gain trust and understanding. And that’s mandatory for User Experience Research when you are really trying to understand your user.

Empathy consists of 4 elements you need to master in order to be able to fully understand others.

  1. See their world through their eyes, put yourself in the shoes of your conversational partner.
  2. Appreciate one another as a human being, don’t judge based on your own opinion.
  3. Understand their feelings and acknowledge them. Don’t compare with other situations you find more extreme. Focus on the feelings of your conversational partner in his specific situation.
  4. Communicate your understanding of these feelings.

Why is empathy indispensable in User Experience?

The basic rule of UX is that you keep in mind that you are not your target audience, you are not designing for yourself. You don’t know how your user feels about your product when you don’t observe and ask.

Empathy is fundamental to gain the most out of UX Research. Empathy means really sharing the feelings of your user and by doing so, you can factor them into your decisions, processes and communication strategy.

When you’re doing User Experience Research right, the products and services you produce are basically byproducts of empathy. We see all too often that products are designed from the designer’s perspective and the functionalities the company thinks are right. When you don’t know or understand what your user really needs you’re at risk of launching a product that will not work for your target audience. Just as a gentle reminder, a staggering 70% of innovations fail because of lack of user acceptance.

When you fail to be empathetic in your user research, you’ll miss some essentials needed to make your research a success. Gaining insights you need to succeed is something that comes naturally when you show empathy. So show empathy and be part of the successful 30%.

Being an empathic person has many benefits within UX research. It makes us not only a better person but also a better designer.

How you ask? When we empathize with our users it’ll lead us to a more genuine understanding of their problem and help us better grasp how we can solve it. People who show empathy generally have a higher emotional intelligence which teaches us how to care more for others. This ultimately reflects in the solutions we provide and the products we launch. Users know when you’ve put thought in your products.

Empathy gives you the advantage of appreciating the user’s point of view in a conversation, which enables you to move forward in the discussion. When presenting your results you can already predict which questions your client will have after your presentation so you can easily anticipate them. Showing your empathic self within the work environment will lead to increased trust, more openness and this’ll lead to a more constructive and higher performing team.

How to be more empathetic?

Like I said in the intro, empathy is a skill not everyone possesses, if you don’t have that skill you probably won’t be a UX researcher or UX designer. But if you are one and you want to become more empathetic, I’ll give you some tips on how to practice and develop that skill more.

First step in empathy is to learn to listen more. When conducting interviews or user tests really focus on that user, listen closely and give him your full attention. Don’t get distracted and think about stuff you still need to do, don’t think about how you forgot to feed your dog. Clear your mind and focus on the person in front of you. Understand his situation and step into it. Don’t assume you know what he is thinking and feeling and more importantly why he is the way he is. Making assumptions and having a personal prejudice will ruffle the correct interpretation of the information he is giving you. Approach your user with an open mind.

A good way to gain empathy is by using a technique called ‘Walk-a-mile Immersion’. It’s quite easy, how often has someone said to you: ‘imagine yourself in my shoes!’. With this technique you’re putting on these shoes and walk the same walk as your user. You’re going to perform his tasks in his environment. This will give you an idea of his motivations, challenges and frustrations.

Use nonverbal communication and this may seem weird but mimic the same facial expressions as your user too. Researchers at UCLA found that mirroring someone’s facial expressions trigger more brain activity in the insula than just observing the expression. The insula is the emotion center of the brain and important for feeling empathy.

Another technique you can use to gain more empathy is roleplaying. Test a product or website with a colleague and ask him to talk out loud about his experiences. Just like you ask your user when conducting a user test. This way you already see the interaction and this can help you to increase your empathy for your users. You can already imagine how they will feel when they use the website or product.

When you want to ensure empathy within the design team, make personas with the hopes, fears, goals and situation of your user. Print them out and take them with you during workshops so that the design team knows the target audience at any moment. You can also bring some actors in who represent the persona so that the designers get a more personal relationship and a better feeling with the matter.

As you see, empathy is essential for gaining the most accurate insights in your users’ behavior and is inseparable from UX research.