Empathy is the ability to understand people and see the world through people's eyes, and it is to step in people's shoes to feel what they feel. It is an intentional attempt to keep aside preconceived notions and uncover the real unspoken needs to truly resonate with the users.
There is a thin line between empathy and sympathy. To not cross that line it is important to understand the differences. Empathy is to feel and share someone's experiences, responses, way of thinking, and way of looking at things. Sympathy is feeling sorrow, pity, and sorry for their troubles.
Empathy in UX design
Empathy plays a critical role in user experience design. If true human needs are not acknowledged, the differences risk compromising design solutions with bias. Research that incorporates observations made in real-life environments, screens, surveys, interviews, and workshops can grasp the several shades of human emotions.
"The better you understand the people who are important for your business, the more you can stand for something fundamentally more important in their eyes”.
— Nigel Hollis, Chief Global Analyst, Kantar Millward Brown.
Different empathy techniques are applied to extract nearly accurate but fair findings, such as storyboarding, what/why/how method, qualitative research methods, ethnography, cultural probe, empathy mapping, and card sorting. Every project has a unique requirement and so it's important to identify which technique/techniques suit the project needs.
Empathy is the first step to build a good design but it is also the outcome. It can be seen in the connection that evolves between the product and the users. For a substantial result — discoveries from empathetic research should be implemented at each phase of the UX design process.
Empathy in the discovery phase — The discovery phase is focused on understanding accurate and mindful information about users to identify the right personas and their stories. Apply the research technique that suits the project needs. Don't rush the discovery phase, findings from this phase are crucial and drive the entire product journey.
Empathy in the strategy Phase — This phase responds to the empathetic findings from the discovery phase with strategies that align with users fluctuating circumstances, needs, and moods to enable businesses and improve user satisfaction with long-term positive impacts such as brand loyalty.
"If we want to be able to retrieve a memory later, you want to build a rich web. It should connect to other memories in multiple ways, so there are many ways for our mind to get back to it."
— Per Sederberg, professor of psychology at Ohio State University.
Empathy in the design Phase — The discoveries from research done from an empathetic point of view drive the need to create immersive and emotionally responsive experiences. Harness the power of findings to get cues for the design concept and solution. If observed carefully these findings also address the right color, layout, type, and content to meet cultural and behavioral needs.
Empathy in the development phase — The objective and the only purpose of technology is not to create economic profit and empower innovation – technology is a way of empowering the people, hence it's important to gain knowledge about people’s behavior, motivations, fears, barriers and empathize with their needs to “tech better” for the future.
Empathy in the delivery phase — Client meetings can be hard and explaining tangible results from time spent empathizing with the users can be harder to explain. Be empathetic towards the needs of the clients to understand how empathy works. Present the results derived from empathic research approaches in each phase when you hand-off the product. It can help them understand the final result in a more meaningful and substantial way.
Thanks to Shelley Evenson, IDEO, Doug Pace, and many more thought leaders, businesses now understand that empathy has the power to heal, understand and solve real problems. It is a part of all the steps that are involved in completing the product design process.
To sum up
Empathy is a really useful tool throughout the UX design process and for making technological progress fair for everyone. The empathetic synergy between designers, developers, agencies and stakeholders/clients can ensure more meaningful, balanced user experiences.
Microsoft, Airbnb, Facebook, Alphabet (Google), Apple, Walt Disney are putting empathy at the forefront to design and build websites, apps, technology solutions, and services. Empathy is also an integral part of their work culture to encourage and support employees. These companies keep users at the center of their decisions, which leads to a better user experience, more productivity, and eventually good business.