“People ignore design that ignores people.”
We've all heard about empathy before, right? It’s the magic word and feeling that helps us look at people with compassion. We appreciate it when other people display it towards us, so we should strive to practice it every day, whether it be in our personal lives or in our professional ones.
As designers, when we enter the UX (user experience) world, empathy is one of the most talked-about concepts and is a major buzzword in the industry. This is for many reasons: in a world where our job is to solve the user’s problem, enhance user satisfaction, and provide a good user experience, empathy is a skill that we should be familiar with.
With the reach that technology has today, you can expect that people with different cultures, different backgrounds, and all sorts of physical and mental constraints use our products. So, we have to be aware of this to be able to design products that are both appealing and inclusive.
What does being empathetic mean?
Nielsen Norman group defines empathy as: “The ability to fully understand, mirror, then share another person’s expressions, needs, and motivations. ”. In UX design, empathy is not only “stepping into others’ shoes”, but it’s also being involved in and doing the research that will carry your decision-making process. “Instead of just designing an accessible website, practicing empathy is using a screen reader, blindfolded, in order to complete a task on your own website.”
Below are some way we can improve our empathetic skills, and ultimately, as designers, we can incorporate this into our daily work:
1. Be aware of your own biases.
Our own biases play a large part in how we perceive others. We all have them, the first step is acknowledging that. After all, our own perceptions are our reality, and sometimes we don’t even think that they may not be the reality of others. Take a step back, and both realize and reflect on your own privilege.
2. Practice active listening.
There’s only one thing to do when you are trying to understand another’s perspective, and that is to have an actual conversation with them about their experience. This way, they can offer different points of view that show you another way to see the world.
Don’t just listen, but be present; really hear what people are saying, understand where they are coming from and their perspective on things.
In UX, you address the user’s problems, so it’s important to put aside your own opinions and accept what you hear and see. Having empathy in design means understanding users: not just their needs, but also their constraints and the context of their situation as a whole.
3. Observe, observe, observe.
Not everyone is going to be willing to talk to you, so it is your responsibility as a UX expert to observe. You’ll want to pay attention to their body language and surroundings. In terms of UX design specifically, how do they interact with your product? What extra steps outside of your product do they have to take to reach their goal? What are their pain points? All of these factors are non-verbal queues that will help you better understand your subject matter.
4. Accept what you hear and see.
We tend to be passionate about the projects we are working on, so sometimes it’s hard to set our feelings and opinions aside. But remember that the point of designing with empathy is not to “prove your point”, but to really understand your users and adapt your approach if necessary. Do your best to try and be open-minded when others are sharing their own opinions.
Empathy is a critical skill for people to have in product design, but also with your own co-workers. Above, I’ve outlined some subtle but impactful changes that you can make to better improve cross-functional collaboration. As you work across departments and across levels of seniority, having empathy for one another is key to overcoming challenges — and can ultimately improve trust between colleagues. It’s critical that you understand others’ needs, constraints, frustrations, and situational context before you can collaborate to solve a problem.