Why you must use empathy effectively in UX design

By Dustin Cartwright Posted Oct. 06, 2014 Reading time: 4 minutes

Empathy arguably underpins user experience design more than anything else. Without it, we would all essentially be flying blind, lacking any clues as to what our users want or need from the things we create.

Empathy allows us to imagine ourselves in our users’ shoes and better understand why they love (or hate) our creations, however it’s not their thought processes, but their emotions that we’re attempting to understand.

Emotion can be used to persuade and shape our users’ decisions to better meet our goals and/or expectations. Having the ability to understand the driving factors behind our users’ decisions is paramount in helping us design better products for them.

Unlike other facets of the designer’s skill set, user experience design isn’t a black and white field, attempting to understand other people is often a vague process, and at its best an average of expectations based on previous user analytics. Still, while being the most unstable facet of our repertoire, user experience design is by far the most useful skill. Not many other skills can be used by all other branches of a production process, from brainstorming an idea all the way down until the final marketing pushes.

Understanding why our users enjoy the products we make and how they use them can help us to make those highly valued products even better, and make our users happier.

To me experience design is an intangible skill, where you can sit in a users shoes and completely empathize with the customer. — Jerome Choo


Why focus on emotion?

In order to understand why emotions play a huge role in user interactions, look no further than the advertising world. There is a monumental industry built around emotions.

Advertising exploits emotions about brands, products, and even people; everything from trust and compassion, to lust and envy.


Using emotion to build a brand

It’s no surprise that companies that stay true to user interests typically perform better. They sell more product, have happier customers, and overall end up with a better image reflecting who they are. These companies didn’t get there by making split-second decisions and taking the easy way. More than likely, they spent a lot of time imagining how their ideas, products, and decisions would affect their customers.

Apple is a shining example of a company with a deep-rooted culture in user experience forethought. Using empathy to place ourselves on the other side of the fence can help us build a more positive experience all around both for us and our end users.

Using empathy to figure out why our users enjoy the things we create provides a lot of insight… But understanding how they feel about and use those things is much more powerful. Arguably, knowing how our users interact with our creations allows us to cater to them more precisely, improve upon past design, and even focus on those aspects in marketing. Simply using empathy to understand emotional responses can lead to a wealth of information that drives creative innovation.


Assumptions with substantiation

Heuristics often comes into play with user experience design despite our best efforts. It’s simply human nature to resort to them when we have a lot of experience with something. If we’ve designed a hundred blogs before, the next one should follow previous use-case patterns, right? That being true, it’s always important to preform due diligence and provide data-backed evidence for our decisions. In many cases, there is already a wealth of information out there supporting our low priority decisions (e.g. Green “critical error” messages perform poorly). But in unique situations, we must sometimes resort to doing our own research, planning, and testing when our expected results don’t match up with real-world results.

When we must resort to our own work, having analytics is an invaluable tool. Being able to quantify and correlate different aspects of our sites’ results can sometimes bring forth new information. Sometimes, we even discover that for a particular brand, product, or situation the users defy common accepted theories and/or expected outcomes. One such example is provided by Betty Crocker; they found that by making the process of baking a boxed cake more complex (adding two real eggs vs egg powder), their customers enjoyed the end result much more because they no longer felt guilty for “cheating”. This is also a great example that shows how emotions will strongly sway opinion of a product.

While we can always write off beneficial improvements to our users as a good thing, sometimes we still must prove it’s a worthwhile endeavor to our superiors. These circumstances are where the analytics and research will come into play. Being able to have clear data showing an expected positive return will more than likely be enough to sway a decision. User experience as a whole has gained a lot of ground in recent years as having a quantifiable effect on users, solidifying it as something to invest in. Even if there isn’t a superior in the picture, it’s always a great idea to have analytical data to look back on later when further research may be needed.


Testing, testing, testing.

Testing a hypothesis is also very important. Performing limited user testing before releasing a change can shed light on things we didn’t expect or encounter during the planning phase of the process. Being able to catch these scenarios before they turn up in the hands of all our users can mean the difference between a successful launch or a complete failure.

Had the Betty Crocker team not performed research into why their new product was doing poorly, many would have assumed boxed cakes were simply vastly inferior to traditional cakes.

In some situations, doing usability or A/B testing may not be an option, but if possible it’s certainly worth it to determine if our research and expectations match the results.


The best solutions sometimes fail

Despite our best efforts, sometimes even the best solutions can fail. Months of planning, research, and preparation can be wiped away in an instant if users end up reacting unexpectedly to changes. But even when this happens, iterating is likely the best solution.

Crafting a well rounded and thoroughly researched user experience isn’t easy, and it doesn’t often happen on the first try. Much like any other design process, iterating and building on previous results gradually, tends to offer the best results over time.


In conclusion

When we take the time to craft a more user-centric experience around the things we create, we end up with a much higher quality end result, and a much happier user as well.

Being able to say we care about our users is more than just a marketing phrase, for us it means we genuinely understand our user’s expectations and we strive to deliver the best experience to meet them.


Featured image/thumbnail, emotion image via Shutterstock.