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The Risks of Designing with(out) Empathy

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The Risks of Designing with(out) Empathy

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Everybody is talking about empathy. Empathy in everyday life; empathy in work; empathy in design. The latter is fast becoming a buzzword, often encapsulating any activity that makes you think about your users.

As UX specialists, we are all about understanding our clients’ target audience, but it’s so much more than simply developing a UX journey that answers a fundamental need. The key is to be able to connect with a user on a deeper level – how do they think? How do they approach problem-solving? In the context of design, empathy isn’t necessarily feeling how people feel or stepping into their shoes to adopt their lifestyle and everything that comes with it. Empathy in design is taking the time to carry out user research, absorbing it into your thinking to guide your decision-making processes. (Source)

It’s not easy to make sure that you actually empathise – this model by Seung Chan Lim can help you understand how empathy works – it’s not something you have or don’t have, it’s a process.

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Empathy can only take place when you talk to your users, observe them and try to understand what they are feeling. Emotions are the core of empathy, and there is no other way of getting to know your users than spending time with the person you want to understand.

Yet using empathy can be risky if you’re not careful. It’s easy to say “We empathise with the users, now let’s redesign the website”. There is a difference between thinking you empathise with your customers and actually having any basis for it. When we project our emotions onto another person, we are susceptible to thinking we understand their state of mind when we don’t. It all boils down to the five most important words to UX Designers: You Are Not Your User. (Source)

In her ‘Using Empathy to Guide Product Strategy’ workshop, Indi Young stated that practicing self-awareness is crucial in understanding others. If you’re unable to understand yourself, you won’t be able to empathise with others. “High self-awareness – both of your feelings and physiological reactions helps in using empathy towards others.” Empathy is not only about emotions, but also about understanding attitudes, motivations for behaviours or even physiological reactions. However, at Pomegranate, we believe that a lack of self-awareness is a risk that can be diminished if you practice hard enough, which we constantly try to do!

In once recent project we undertook for a recruitment company, in order to deliver an effective online user experience we needed to understand ‘their’ world – how they go about it, what interrupts them and what are the internal pressures they face. To empathise with them, we conducted interviews, gathered insights from the client sales and support teams and reviewed secondary research about recruitment.

Through the process of gathering all our research data, we were mindful that whilst we had the ability to learn so much about our client’s target customer, at the end of the day we are people – we have our own set of attitudes, values and experiences, and therefore some degree of assumption is inevitable. The trick is to remove these assumptions and keep open to what the other person/customer is about.

Overcoming assumptions is difficult, but founding a strategy on them is an extreme risk. When businesses realise that their product or service is misaligned with the user world, it’s often too late to empathise. Empathy must drive the strategy, not the other way around.

One tool we use is proto-personas, which gives team members a starting point for discussions about the users. It is a version of persona which is not based entirely on research, so assumptions are the crux of it. Ultimately it is a dangerous process to use proto-personas, as avoiding assumptions in UX design is the main goal; however they are a great way to realise that we don’t know much about our customers, and provide a platform for highlighting holes in our approach and offer an opportunity to refine, revamp and rewrite our approach.

At Pomegranate, we always push for as much research as the budget and the timeframe allow, so that our whole process has solid foundations. We are harnessing collaboration to make sure that the user insights flow through the entire design process – from strategy and project management, through to UX designers and visual designers to developers. Only then, with a firm understanding of the customer can we use our strengths, such as creativity, to overcome their problems.

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To find out more about how Pomegranate can help you integrate empathy into your product/service offering

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