What Is Empathy And Why Is It Important In UX?

Posted By Debbie on August 24, 2016

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.