Empathy 101 for UX Professionals

If you’re in the UX business or at least have an interest in this field, you may have come across many articles and books telling us that empathy is fundamental in user-centred design and user experience research. UX experts emphasise the fact that empathy helps the designer understand the needs of users, their frustrations, motivations, and problems. As a counselling psychologist, a counsellor educator, and a UX researcher, I thought I might share some important points that you could make use of as to using empathy skills in the UX field, as well as how to improve these skills.

For us, counselling psychologists, empathy is a critical skill to understand and help our clients. It allows us enter their world and capture what they experience as much as we can. It helps us connect with our clients, establish a trusting relationship, and encourage a higher level of self-disclosure. After all, we cannot read minds; but empathy gives us an opportunity to be as close as possible to the experiences of our clients and make the most accurate predictions about their motivations and behaviours.

Empathy — emotional understanding of one’s personal feelings and experiences — is a very difficult skill to develop and demonstrate. All of us are born with the capacity to have empathy, but some of us are born more empathic. However, it is also a skill which can be improved by learning specific techniques and strategies, as well as by experience (and let’s not forget the importance of lots of practice).

With the rise of user-focused design in UX, empathy has been gaining more and more recognition and acceptance among UX professionals given that user’s perception is more important than our own. User experience is damaged when designers detach themselves from users. In the design context, empathy is actually what drives us to understand our users, i.e., do research, so that we are guided by users’ point of view in the design process.

Empathy as a mind-set in user experience research

In the design context, empathy involves more than the understanding of what the users are experiencing. It is actually a mind-set which allows us to conduct research with the idea that users are the vital starting point in design. It is a general understanding of how we can design products that users actually need, want, and enjoy. It is not possible to capture the emotional state of all users (even counselling psychologists may not totally understand how the other is feeling). However, by using an empathic mind-set, we can get a general idea of how users behave, feel and think, and use it to guide our decision-making processes.

Empathy should involve not only users, but also stakeholders

Thinking of empathy as a tool to understand users, and users only, is quite limiting. How can you go about interviewing/observing your users or customers before you empathise with the stakeholders and learn their needs? It is impossible to implement user-centred design without engaging our team members, our clients, or any other stakeholders involved. This applies to the research process as well; we invite stakeholders to usability testing sessions, to interviews, to field studies and ask them to share their observations with us. These are all part of the empathy process. Trust me, most of the time it is easier for you to understand the users better by trying to empathise with the stakeholders.

You don’t have to be an empathy guru

Just to make it clear: the concept of empathy I’m talking about applies to all contributors. Not only designers or researchers, but also programmers, product owners, or information architectures can (and should) make use of empathy skills in the product development process. However, sometimes I see that colleagues from more “technical” fields have hesitations about empathy, because they think that they lack social intelligence and that they won’t be able to empathise with others. It is true that empathy is a complex skill, and part of social intelligence; but it doesn’t mean that you have to take the shoes of a professional counsellor or a psychotherapist. As a UX professional, you don’t have to demonstrate advanced empathy. Just try to learn as much as you can about empathy, get help from colleagues if you need, and practice by using it in your daily life.

Improving empathy requires good observation

When we’re teaching empathy to our counsellor to be students, we use a variety of techniques. Among those is the practice of observation. But by practice, I mean a lot of practice! Besides, your aim should be observing not only the users (customers), but strangers around you as well. Observing users in our labs, doing various survey studies, or interviewing them over the phone are some ways that can help us get the needs and problems of our users. However, real understanding comes when we actually go where the users are when they’re interacting with the product, observe what they are doing, feeling, and thinking. Look at how people use a washing machine or a news-feed app, and observe how they overcome obstacles. You may learn more by looking at the behaviours of users than listening to them.

Empathy is not complete without reflecting it back to others

Common sense is that empathy means putting yourself in the shoes of others and understand what they’re going through, mostly their emotions. However, empathy has another component which is definetely not less important than the understanding component. Let’s say you’re having a conversation with the product owner or a client. They’re briefing you about the product, about what they want and need. You’re trying to empathise with them. That’s a good thing. But you also need to show that you’re actually trying to (or that you did) understood them. How do we achieve this? We can do it by demonstrating an open, attentive body language; by observing not only what they say, but their body language, too; by asking appropriate questions related to the topic and what the person is saying which all show that you’re really listening and interested.

Tips for improving empathy

Here are some tips for you that can assist you in improving your empathy skills.

  • When listening to someone, be present and listen hard by putting aside your own thoughts and planning.
  • Be curious; about strangers and about the world around you. Be interested in others without intimidating them or giving them advice. Have a chat with someone you don’t know and try to understand the world inside that person’s head.
  • Remove your masks, be genuine and open yourself up to people. Sharing something personal about yourself in an authentic way is one of the most important ways of learning how to be more empathic.
  • Try to be aware of your prejudices. One way to do that is to recognise your assumptions about others and which labels you use for certain groups. Focus more on the similarities that you have with others rather than things that divide you.

Empathy is a valuable skill that can improve not only your relationships in your persona life, but in your professional life as well. It can also increase help you become more successful in doing your job. In the field of UX, a better understanding of people we are designing for as well as of our colleagues and stakeholders is a requirement for better decisions and better designs.

If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from his angle as well as your own.  — Henry Ford

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