Empathy has become a bit of a buzzword in UX lately. Many trusted experts are saying that various aspects of UX strategy and design require empathy.
What empathy isn’t.
A few months ago, I ended up in a Facebook battle with a stranger whose profile said he was a Senior UX Researcher at a company I won’t name. The topic was the poor experience I had with Kent State University’s online grad program (and let’s not go into that one again). He seemed determine to invalidate my opinion. He accused me of “sour grapes,” which made no sense since I am not jealous of a school experience I gleefully quit.
Late in the battle, he started a sentence with, “I empathize with you, but…” and proceeded to try to make it sound like my opinion and experience weren’t really what I was claiming they were.
First, you don’t empathize with me. If you truly felt empathy, you would understand why the experience I had produced the beliefs and reactions I had surrounding it.
Second, nobody has empathy but then disagrees or invalidates what the other person is saying, feeling, or experiencing. That’s not empathy.
What is empathy?
I have read a lot of definitions and have come up with my own. Very often, people say that empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes… and perhaps walking a mile. But that’s not really empathy. Weirdo Sr UX Researcher put himself in my shoes and decided my reactions to my own experience made no sense perhaps because it’s not how he would have reacted to the same situation. That’s also not sympathy.
Empathy is you putting yourself as me into my shoes.
If you put yourself into my shoes, you will think like you. React like you. Parse information like you.
If you imagine me in my shoes, you should then be thinking like I think. Reacting like I think. Assessing situations like I do. Which means you always validate that person. Whatever he or she thinks, believes, decides, opines… it makes sense… to him or her. You might do something different! Doesn’t matter. You are seeing the world through someone else’s eyes as him or her.
No outside judgment.
As soon as you are saying that someone’s reaction makes no sense, her feelings don’t match her situation, he’s making a mountain out of a molehill, her conclusions and assessments of her own situation are weird, those are your judgments. And they are not empathy.
Empathy requires that you remove your own judgments, ideas, preferences, and “what you would have done” in order to try to really imagine things through the eyes of the user.
I recently saw an example of what not to do when I saw a user story written by a product manager. Normally, user stories go something like, “As the user, I want to be able to [do something] because [user’s reason].” The product manager had written, “As the product manager, I want the user to be able to [do something] for [product manager’s reason].”
User centered design needs you to BE the user
You may not be your own company’s target audience. But to do your best UX work, you have to step out of your own shoes. You have to get away from the mirror and BE the personas or target audience. Don’t just “put yourself in their shoes;” that’s still you being you, just in some other scenario or bizarro world.
To truly know how a user would potentially react to something, to understand how a user might use something, and to know if you have designed the right solution, you have to be the user. Since we haven’t invented technology to put us in other people’s heads, we have to do this through empathy.
If you are not naturally very empathetic, start by thinking of it as acting. You ARE the persona. Get into character. Improv. What does that person’s life look like? How is he motivated and what influences him? What are her needs and goals? What improvisation can you do around what this persona would be like brought to life?
One of my fave UX researchers (not the above guy) would say the same thing often to people during user testing. “That makes sense,” he would say with comfort in his voice, no matter what the user just did or said. Because to the user, they were doing it right and he was validating that… and them. Good stuff.
And that other “Senior UX Researcher”? He wasn’t empathetic or sympathetic. He was just pathetic.
How far in advance should a product warn you that the battery is low and in danger of dying? On many mobile phones, you will get “power saving mode” with around 20% battery life left. Depending on your phone, that might give it another hour of power.
My motorcycle Bluetooth helmet system gives an auditory low battery warning. It interrupts whatever I’m hearing to say, “Low battery.” Thanks! That helps.
Except it gives it one minute before the unit shuts down from being out of power. This makes me think the low battery warning happen with around 2-5% left.
Not helpful. Remember that warnings should help users fix the problems. Giving me one more minute of power while I’m listening to Google direct me is… not delightful. Give me a half hour or hour so that I know to charge up the unit.
I Googled “design custom backpack” because I want something specific and can’t seem to find it.
One search result was this page from the Vans site. I can tell from the bread crumbs that this is a page for designing a BACKPACK.
But I can only tell that from the bread crumbs.
I can’t believe this is still a thing. Based on the request to renew the license of my FTP software, it still is a thing.
This email is coming from an unmonitored account or so says the copy. Yet when I hit reply, the email went to sales@.
That’s the right thing to do… though they do need to update their form email to say you can hit reply if you need help.
Every email you send should allow replies.
The reply doesn’t have to go to the same person, department, or mailing list that sent the email to the recipient. But if people naturally hit reply, let that email go SOMEWHERE where it gets attention.
Perhaps that reply generates a support ticket. Perhaps it goes to a real person or team. But it shouldn’t go nowhere.
And we shouldn’t even message people anything that sounds like they won’t be able to easily get service or support. Need help? Hit reply. Make it easy for them.
We use live chat on our website. I man it (woman it?) personally. I’m happy to answer questions people have as they move around our site. Plus, if people are having trouble finding something, this helps me improve areas of the site people may find unclear.
I heard that Facebook wants you to get Messenger on your site so you can chat. But can Messenger do this?
This is Olark, a chat system I like and use (and would recommend). When someone hits the site, I get the IP (not pictured here) and their best guess at the location.
“This is a new customer” would say something different if Olark thinks or knows this visitor has been here before.
I can see how they got to my site and what pages they’re on. Looks like someone might have questions!
I could wait to see if this person starts the live chat or emails me.
We have a chat offering in the bottom right but Olark lets me do a proactive chat. So I asked this person if I could answer any questions about our live public Axure training workshops. Yes. He/she wanted to know the pricing for the live San Francisco workshops as well as whether or not I thought someone who has been using Axure a while would get something out of it. Great questions!
We chatted a few minutes. I even managed to make this person LOL over chat, which is a fun customer service moment.
Can your live chat do that?
I don’t just need reactive chat. I want the chance to consider proactively reaching out to someone who perhaps is a return visitor, someone who perhaps looks like he is hitting a bunch of similar pages and perhaps having trouble finding the answers he wants.
Olark isn’t the only game in town but I am really liking their system. Go proactive!