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How Can Empathy Help You Design Products People Love?

In this article, we’ll delve deeper into what empathy is, why it’s essential in UX design and the strategies you can use to master this critical skill to design better products.

Designing products that offer an excellent user experience is challenging, made even more difficult when you don’t understand the emotions, motivations, frustrations and goals of the people your building for. As a designer, possessing the ability to empathise with users is critical in helping you make the right product-related design decisions and avoid fatal mistakes that will damage UX and increase churn. Although it may seem like a pretty straightforward thing to do, research suggests that empathy is a skill in severe deficit amongst technology professionals, especially males. Luckily, like most skills, empathy is something that you can master, with plenty of practice and hard work.

What is Empathy?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”, from their needs, motivations, problems and desires. Not to be mistaken with sympathy, which involves merely acknowledging the plight of others, usually manifested in the form of pity and sorrow. 

Why is Empathy Important in Product Design?

Empathising with users is an essential ability all designers need. It forms the first stage of the design thinking process, acting as a key to unlock important information regarding user behaviours, feelings, motivations and needs—key insights which ultimately form the foundations and guidelines to help designers create more useful products and solutions.

Instead of telling you about its importance, let’s take a look at the Google Glass and Quibi. Two products that promised big, but failed miserably, with a severe case of empathy deficit during product design being the cause of death.

Empathy Fails #1 – Google Glass

When unveiled in 2013, the Google Glass wowed audiences, vowed to transform human-computer interaction and wearable technology. Seven years on, Googles attempt to immerse digital interfaces in the real world is nowhere to be seen. Crushed by its design teams failure to empathise with users, which yielded an unbelievably poor user experience.

Empathy Fails #2 – Quibi

Launched in April 2020, Quibi was a mobile-only streaming platform that specialised in high-quality production short-form video content 10 minutes or below in length. They raised a total investment of $1.75 Billion and snapped up some Hollywoods superstars to feature in their original content. Despite all this, they struggled to get people using the platform and failed faster than you can say “Netflix and chill”. Once again, the issue wasn’t the UI and technology behind Quibi app, which was pretty decent, but several monumental mistakes which were avoidable with a more empathic approach to product design.

How Can You Master Empathy?

As humans, we all possess the ability to empathise; however, due to environmental and some say genetic factors, is something we exercise in varying degrees. In this section, we’ll be delving deeper into the different methods, techniques and strategies you can use to strengthen this critical skill, which will ultimately help you build products that solve the problems, whilst addressing the needs and desires of users.

Practice Makes Perfect 

Like any other skill, building empathy requires consistency, focus and practice. One of the best ways you can become better at this is by incorporating it in your everyday life. Whether you’re in the office, cafe or on public transport, the simple act of observing someone’s body language and empathising with their situation will help you become better at applying empathy when designing products. 

Think Like A Beginner, Reserve Judgment and Listen.

Expressing strong opinions and passing judgment based on pre-conceived notions is something we’ve all done at least once. As a designer, you need to be very vigilant as this habit weakens your ability to empathise, which will become evident in shoddy work you produce. 

Instead of letting your opinions sabotage your mind into making judgments, always approach situations with a clear head and listen to the people your designing for. As understanding their behaviours, needs, pain points, and desires forms the basis for behind which your product is designed. 

Pay Close Attention to Body Language

You can learn alot about a person emotions and psychological state by merely observing their body language. Everything from our posture to the most minute facial expressions emits some vital information about us. As a designer, having the ability to identify and decipher these signals effectively is key to helping us better empathise with users.

Thanks to technological progression, observing users has never been easier. Where in the past you’d have to follow, watch your users physically and take notes. You can now easily do with minimal effort and reduced time investment. Below are two techniques you can use to simplify the process of user observation.

  1. Personal Video/Photo Journals – This involves giving users either a phone or camera and asking them to record when they’re carrying out specific tasks or using your product—an excellent way to capture insights of users behaving in their most natural environment. 
  2. Photographing/Recording Users – This is also a useful method of getting insights on user behaviours that they may not be able to articulate with words. The only downside with this method is that they might adjust their behaviour as they’re aware you’re watching them.

Be Inquisitive – Ask What? How? & Why?

As designers, our role is to challenge internal assumptions by observing users continually to deduce the underlying motivations that drive their behaviour. One way to this is by always asking yourself three vital questions during observation. These questions are, What? How? and 

  • What? – This involves taking documenting the details of what happened during our observations
  • How? – This involves an analysis of how users complete an action. E.g. What facials expressions did they make?
  • Why? – This one is not exactly 100%, but it requires us to try to explain the motivations and emotional state when in the act, based on our observations. 

When you apply this framework continuously during observations, it can help you gain that depth of knowledge and empathise better with the people your building for.

Conduct Empathy Interviews

Empathy Interviews are an excellent way to build a deep understanding of your users’ motivations and needs. However, before you jump into speaking with users, there are several best practices that you should apply in interview sessions to ensure they run effectively and yield meaningful insights.

  1. Make it conversational – Don’t be a robot. If interviewees feel like your interrogating them, they’ll be more tentative on sharing the most personal and honest insights. Structure your interview as if you’re having a chat. 
  2. Pair Up or Record – In empathy interviews, you must capture information while remaining focused and engaged with the users. To ensure you do both, either set up a microphone or camera to record or take someone with you to take notes for you. 
  3. Ask Why? – By doing this, you can challenge what you think you know, and get more in-depth insights and an accurate understanding of what motivates and drives users in reality. 
  4. Keep A Close Eye on Non-Verbal Queues – Body language and facial expressions can help you understand specific emotions.  
  5. Be Specific – Asking questions regarding specific scenarios and avoid using the term “usually”.

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Empathy Mapping

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Empathy Mapping is a handy tool that allows you to visualise all the information you know about your users, identify any knowledge gaps that require further research and create a shared understanding of their needs within your product/design team. 

The first step to creating an empathy map involves conducting user interviews, paying close attention to their responses and behaviour in relation to four quadrants:

  1. SAY – This includes direct quotes from interviews.
  2. THINK – These are the thoughts of a user, which they may not want to express, e.g. “This is so frustrating.”
  3. DO – This includes the specific actions of users, e.g. clicking particular buttons.
  4. FEEL-  This represents the emotional state of the user, usually depicted with an adjective followed by a short statement. e.g. Confused – The top navigation isn’t straightforward.

The insights gained from empathy mapping will guide your product team throughout the design process, ultimately helping them make better decisions. 

Get Physical

Bodystorming is a technique which involves immersing yourself in the environment and physically experiencing a situation that users face. The goal of this to help you empathise better and provide insights on the people your building for, so you can ideate and create more innovative products that solve their problems while also addressing their needs.

Interact With Extreme Users

The userbase distribution for most companies follows a bell-shaped curve. With the average users aggregated around the centre, and the extreme ones at opposite ends of the spectrum. On one side, you have extreme users that use your product alot, also known as lead users. On the other extreme, you have users that hardly ever use your product or service.

On both ends of the spectrum, Extreme users have amplified needs compared to the average. By engaging them in the UX design process, you can discover new ideas, use cases and insights, helping you to empathise better, reframe a problem, and design more innovative products/solutions that even address the needs of the majority.

Key Takeaway

Empathy is a powerful skill that allows us to uncover and truly understand the latent needs and emotions of the people we are surrounded by and are designing for. Helping us to design products/solutions that deliver killer user experiences and value.

Laura Brazay

Laura Brazay

Digital branding specialist with experience in social media strategy, and a background in Business Administration, who sees life in the full spectrum of colours. I spend my free time taking long walks exploring the city with my pup.

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