Empathy for users is a foundation for any successful UX project. Depending on how well you can put yourself in the shoes of your user usually dictates the success of your designs in real world scenarios. Look at it this way, if you don’t really know what your user is after how could you ever really design anything that would be of use to them?
A UX designer has to take the pain points of the user and make them their own. Really feel them. By doing so the UX designer can see from their perspective and make informed design decisions which in turn make the project focussed and more likely to succeed.
In this post we’ll explore why empathy is so important and how you can use Design Thinking tools and tactics to elevate the affinity you have with your users.
Empathy in UX design, what is it?
The dictionary definition of empathy goes something like this:
“The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”
Notice how this definition is slightly different to sympathy. Being sympathetic is more reactive. It’s how you respond to the suffering or joy of another person.
Being empathic in design is about spending the time to really delve into and understand what another person needs, what drives them, what pain points they are suffering, what their goals are, their hopes, fears. Do they have any limitations we should understand?
Limitations can come in many forms and considering them all can help make sure you truly understand the user. Examples of limitations could be lack of understanding of a certain technology or perhaps mental or physical limitations that might impact how they use a product or service. There is a whole discipline within UX dedicated to accessibility and how it can be improved to be as inclusive for as many people as possible!
When we understand a potential user on this level we can then start to come up with solutions that address their needs. The output of these solutions can then go on to improve their lives.
Sometimes these solutions can go on to make the world a better place. A great example of this is Tesla’s dedication to creating high quality electric vehicles that can match and outperform their fossil fuel counterparts. This in turn reduces carbon emissions and global warming, making the world a safer place for us all.
Who are the users of your product or service?
Now we have an understanding of what empathy in UX design is, we can start to apply that to our projects. The first and key step to this is to identify who your users are. Without a good understanding of this we could potentially design the right thing, but for the wrong person.
User research is the first port of call when trying to empathise with users. User research encompasses various ways of teasing information out about people to better understand them. There are two categories of research we can do, quantitative and qualitative.
This type of research is all about quantities and is measured in numbers. You can gather this type of data in a number of ways ranging from surveys to existing data sources.
- Learn users opinions and habits
- Large sample size
- Quick to gather
- Focus on real data
- Easily anonymised
- Doesn’t dig into the ‘why’
- Can be manipulated
- Can be misinterpreted
- No follow up
- Researcher bias can be a problem
This type of research is about observing and interacting with the user and assessing usability.
- Fewer participants needed
- Gather specific insights
- Enhances creativity
- Advocates the human experience
- Open ended
- Time consuming
- Harder to analyse
- Researcher bias
How long does user research take?
This is one of those “how long is a ball of string?” questions. Research is done until enough is done. That’s not a particularly useful statement, so let’s rethink this question and frame it more “how much user research is enough?”. We can probably start to put some numbers around that. The following numbers are all ballpark, you may need more or less depending on your goals, budget and time. I would also recommend making research an ongoing process, even if your product/feature/service has already been released.
When researching a persona your goal is to understand a group of people and find patterns within that data. This lets you build out a persona, basically a distillation of that group that best represents them. Depending on the complexity of your project I would recommend about 15-30 hour long interviews (the more complex, the more interviews).
You can group personas into three broad types dependent on the type and volume of research that has gone into them. Often personas can be a mixture of all three.
Persona research methods:
- Empathy mapping
A persona should be a living document of sorts. As new insights about your persona are revealed, make sure to validate and update your document to reflect this. That way you are getting closer to a better understanding of the user!
Usability research can happen remotely or in-person. There are pros and cons to both with time investment, ease and cost being the major factors. The benefit of conducting usability research is that you can test hypotheses and assumptions you have about your users. By proving or disproving these, you can increase the empathy with your users exponentially.
For usability research and testing, depending on the size of the feature or product, somewhere in the region of 5-20 users is usually enough to get a good understanding of any usability issues.
Usability research methods:
- User interviews
- Remote usability testing
- In-person usability testing
- Diary studies
- A/B testing
- Field studies
- Focus groups
- Card sorting
What does your target user need?
Often product design revolves around what the user wants. However I like to think about identifying what the user needs. If you can really dig into this and figure out what they don’t know they want yet, you’re one step ahead of the competition.
“Some people say give the customers what they want, but that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do..” – Steve Jobs I’ll be honest, this is easier said than done. If it were easy, all companies everywhere would be creating life changing products. If only. Uncovering what the user needs is really about leveraging the community who would be interested in your idea and interacting with them. Gather as much research data you can, but (and this is a big one) make sure to utilise it. Look for patterns, repeated requests, repeated frustrations and repeated goals. Your job is to identify opportunities within these patterns and then test the hypothesis you build off the back of that. If a hypothesis turns out to be true, you’ve probably got a good starting point to build an MVP product, service or feature. Happy days!
“Some people say give the customers what they want, but that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do..” Steve Jobs
I’ll be honest, this is easier said than done. If it were easy, all companies everywhere would be creating life changing products. If only.
Uncovering what the user needs is really about leveraging the community who would be interested in your idea and interacting with them. Gather as much research data you can, but (and this is a big one) make sure to utilise it. Look for patterns, repeated requests, repeated frustrations and repeated goals. Your job is to identify opportunities within these patterns and then test the hypothesis you build off the back of that.
If a hypothesis turns out to be true, you’ve probably got a good starting point to build an MVP product, service or feature. Happy days
What are the major pain points for your users?
Through the distillation of all that lovely data you’ve collected you may have noticed recurring pain points or frustrations your users are experiencing. These are the challenges you must solve for your users.
When you have a good selection of them, you can start to prioritise them. A good way to approach this is to think about what would have the biggest impact on the user if you solved that challenge? The bigger the impact, the higher the priority.
Example pain point:
“I’ve got a high priority banking transaction to make this morning, I can’t wait for the banks to open, I need to be able to do it at home.”
How can I put myself in the shoes of my user?
When I was at school my teacher gathered us up in the morning and handed out scarves to half of us. We looked at each other puzzled. She then instructed us to pair up with someone. One of us had to wear the scarf as a blindfold and the other would be the guide. We would then proceed to complete a series of tasks whilst walking around the school.
What was the point of this exercise? To understand what it was like to be a blind person for a few hours. My teacher was putting us in the shoes of a blind person so we could experience their world. We could then collectively empathise with them and better understand any challenges they faced in daily life. It was enlightening.
This is what you need to do for your users. Maybe not specifically blindfolds (though sometimes that may be necessary too!) but experiencing exactly what the user goes through on a daily basis.
For example, say you’re a UX designer in software. You’re trying to understand if a new feature opportunity you’ve discovered is actually what the user wants or needs. Firstly, get out of the office.
Go to a customer who is already using your product and who you think might be interested in a feature like this. Conduct a field study. Watch how they use the software currently. Ask them about the problems they’re facing. See if how they use the software highlights anything they might not know they need.
This to me is a great way to build real human-to-human empathy. There’s a real person on the end of the research you’re doing. And you also now have someone who’s more invested in what you’re trying to accomplish as it benefits them!
Be an empathic UX designer
Hopefully you can now see the importance of building empathy with your users. To me this is one of the more difficult, but more rewarding aspects of UX design.
Often as a designer we’re expected to output tangible deliverables. New wireframes, mockups, prototypes, styleguides etc. This can be a tricky expectation to manage as a UX designer as the tangible outputs of research and discovery are not the final design of the product. They’re a series of documents, personas, videos and data points.
By using empathy as a framing tool for your stakeholders, you can get buy-in to the importance of spending time researching prior to ideation and design phases. When you get buy-in on a company-wide level, and everyone understands the user, amazing things can happen.
If you can put the time and effort into this aspect of your UX work, the reward will be huge. Use that understanding to constantly test, iterate and update your perception of the user and you will definitely move the needle on the products you design in the right direction.
Books on UX Empathy
There are many great books out there, here are a few I’d recommend:
- The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman
- Continuous Discovery Habits by Teresa Torres
- It’s Our Research by Tomer Sharon