The use of empathy in UX

One of the pitfalls of being an ‘expert’ is the belief that you know what is best for the end user. If you are a designer, you risk operating from your opinions rather than the opinions of the users you are designing for. When developing software, it is so important to get UI and UX right; it is the user who will decide whether the software is easily usable and valuable and ultimately, whether the software is a success. The user’s experience, or UX , will ultimately determine the level of engagement the user will have - it goes without saying that user engagement is always a high-priority goal in the software development world.

Studies show that in the IT industry, professionals have a low level of empathy and that men in particular do not approach their clients with empathy. Since the industry has traditionally had a higher percentage of men, the lack of empathy for users is of concern. As experts who can solve problems, IT departments as well as software engineers and designers sometimes miss the mark when it comes to understanding what users want; worse still, they completely miss the mark on what users feel. Since UX is all about the user’s experience, it follows that empathy is a basic requirement of good design. Luckily, empathy can be learned, and fortunately, UX research can be conducted with a view to maximizing the empathy utilized in software development.

So, what is empathy? You can Google it and find many different definitions. The simplest way to define it is ‘understanding something from another’s point of view’. It is not about acceptance or judgement; when we empathize we don’t judge the person’s reasoning, thoughts or feelings, and we don’t need to agree with them. We are simply understanding their experience in their terms. The easiest way to empathize is when you see someone else experiencing something that you have experienced too. For example, you see someone fall off a bike and you instantly remember what it felt like when you fell off a bike. You might even twinge or grimace as if in pain as you relive the experience. However, empathy is really evident when you can relate to someone’s experience even if you have never gone through it yourself, or you disagree with them but are still able to understand, without judgement. This means that when you design UX, empathy for the user must be front and centre.

The way research is conducted can lead to increased empathy. For example, many companies create questionnaires with rating scales or simple yes or no answers; these only provide a very narrow section of the total experience since the researcher determined what is to be asked, and then defined the way it is to be answered. In order to get as much information as possible, questions should be open-ended where the user is able to answer with as much detail as possible. One very effective method is contextual inquiry, where the user is the expert in their experience and the designer simply listens and observes. More importantly, the user has the freedom to express how the software is engaging them at every stage of use; it is in the designer’s interest to understand how the software holds the user’s attention and how well the user can intuitively navigate the platform. Careful attention to the user’s experience with every detail of the platform can lead to ultimate success.

The main point here is that designers need to become curious and learn what the user wants and how the user feels, without interjecting their opinion or judgment. This is often difficult for professionals because they pride themselves in their knowledge and ability, and don’t see the value in putting it aside to learn about the user. In order to increase the use of empathy, designers need to shift their mindset to one of inquiry, observation and intuitive understanding. If this sounds challenging, the good news is that this skill can be learned. Ultimately, strong empathic connection with the user should be included in the foundation of UX design knowledge.

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