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Empathy: More Than Just Another UX Buzzword

One would think that as humans, we all come to this world with empathy as an innate quality. Then why is the term Empathy in both the software design and development worlds spreading like wildfire? Shouldn’t it be a given? Aren’t we, by nature, empathetic? Turns out, we are, but we’re also imperfect, forgetful and easily distracted. The 2018 Hawaii false missile alert and the Google Glass case are only examples of our lack of application of empathy.

As creatives, our job is to facilitate and produce solutions to continue to innovate and help real people. As user experience designers, practicing empathy is a great way to keep our own priorities in check and understand how our users really think and feel.

What’s Empathy then? (And what it is not)

A simple way to define Empathy is by understanding what it isn’t. Pity, sympathy and compassion are not Empathy. Here’s how designer Elizabeth Alli defines these levels of engagement:

Designer Frank Chimero has a point: people ignore design that ignores people. But how can we best relate to users’ pain points and design a useful solution?

Froukje Sleeswijk Visser’s empathy framework comes in handy when doing user research. Considering all of these stages is crucial:

1. Discovery

UX Design Empathy Framework - Enter the User's World and Make Contact

2. Immersion
UX Design - Immersion - Directly experience the lives, context, activities and environments of people.

3. Connection

Empathy Framework - Connection - Interpret the world through the lens of their values, history and culture.

4. Detachment

UX Empathy framework - Detachment - Come back to your designer role and begin to reflect on what you've learned and experienced in order to generate ideas

Practical toolkit

There are several methods to empathize with users such as ethnographic studies, interviews and bodystorming. One that stands out for its practicality is the Empathy Map, which allows teams to align on a shared understanding of users needs and wants. It’s a great tool to study users and guide design decisions.

So, what is the verdict on empathy? Jon Kolko, founder of the Austin Center for Design puts it best: “[While] absolute empathy is impossible, the pursuit of it, isn’t. The closer you get to your users, the more likely you’ll do something for them that they find usable, useful and desirable.” And that is undeniably the goal of great software design.

Related reading

UX design and empathy: are we doing it right?

4 Essential Steps to Designing with Empathy