Empathy – Essential Soft Skills for User Experience Practitioners

The other day I was reading Donna Spencer’s excellent book A Practical Guide to Information Architecture. Early on in the book she runs through a list of skills that she things help most with Information Architecture work, and I was struck by what she chose to write about first – empathy.

Donna says:

The person creating the IA must genuinely care about understanding the people who will use the site, and be willing to represent their needs (and go into bat for them when the pressure is on).

I think there is a very important nuance in what Donna has written here. Notice that she doesn’t just say ‘it’s important that you try to understand the people who will use the site’ but rather that you ‘genuinely care about understanding’ them.

Look for definitions of empathy and one word comes up repeatedly – feelings.

As UX practitioners, we seem to be on a constant drive to validate our work with number, processes, techniques, deliverables. This is all very important, and let’s continue to do that. But don’t let’s think that identifying pain points in a user journey through site usage analysis is the same as actually witnessing someone experiencing that pain.

Let’s not become caught up in simply designing to achieve numerical goals associated with user behaviour. Rather, let’s design to see the smile that spreads broadly over someone’s face when they’re able to achieve something they didn’t think possible, when they feel empowered, when the design surprises them in a good way, when it delights them.

If you don’t genuinely care about the people who are going to use whatever it is you are working for, then perhaps you need to ask whether you should be working on that project. Perhaps you need a holiday, perhaps you need a new job, perhaps you’re not actually cut out to be a UX person after all, perhaps you just need to do some more user research work.

Genuinely caring – having real empathy – is something that can’t be taught, but it is something that we can allow, encourage and validate for ourselves and our UX peers.

So, let’s do the work we need to do to gain the understanding we need, and then let’s be properly empathetic – let’s really care about those people we’re designing for. It will make you a better designer, and it will also makes the world a whole lot more interesting when you can see it, richly, from so many different perspectives.

Adaptability – Essential Soft Skills for User Experience Practitioners

As User Experience practitioners, we spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about the skills we don’t have or have enough of and trying to acquire them.

I don’t hear a lot about the soft skills that, in my opinion, are probably more important than all of the CSS, sketching & typography skills you seek so I thought I’d contribute a short series on some of my favourite soft skills, starting with this on on adaptability.

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.

– Charles Darwin

Best Practice is a concept that you hear of frequently but very rarely see because very few projects are actually appropriate for ‘best practice’. What most projects need is the best possible practice you can fit in to the constraints of the project you’re faced with. There are usually many constraints.

Typical constraints include a lack of time, budget, people, data, cooperation, interest, and understanding of UX.

You can spend your time battling to remove these constraints – sometimes this is appropriate but usually it is not only fruitless but also places you further behind than when you started. Usually, the best thing to do is to sit down and work out what is the best you can do within these constraints and get started.

Adaptability is about understanding and respecting that, for your client, UX is usually one of many priorities they need to balance. It’s about responding to the environment you find yourself in, building the best process, employing the best techniques you can in the best way you can within the constraints you’ve been given. It’s about doing your job entirely differently for almost every project.

Adaptability is about knowing that you’re not doing things the best possible way but, against the odds, you’re getting them done well enough. It’s about being creative. It’s about remaining aware of the corners you’re cutting and factoring them into the analysis.

Adaptability makes User Experience accessible to all projects.

How to be more adaptable:

  • DO be as familiar as you can with as many different UX techniques as possible – read, listen, talk to your peers, be active in the incredibly sharing global UX network
  • DON’T be precious, or a stickler for process. Don’t expect people to drop everything to do things your way (or the way it says in the book)
  • DO keep doing research
  • DON’T sacrifice time to do analysis and lots of design exploration (sketch!)
  • DO make sure you’re constantly focussed on the end goal – what are you trying to achieve? What is the goal of the redesign you’re doing to that page? What is the goal of that research activity? (Demonstrable victories often buy you more time/budget/participation for future projects)
  • DON’T do it alone – share your process with the team and skill them up to assist, look for ways to work together to save time
  • DO cut corners – interview less people, recruit less fussily, spend less time, prototype more roughly.
  • DON’T forget which corners you’ve cut and why – factor this into your analysis, educate your team on what would have been a more ideal approach
  • DO be creative – experiment, try different approaches and see what works, make up new ways to solve problems (and share them back with us!)

Please share your thoughts on how to be more adaptive as a UXer, and also the other soft skills you think a great UX practitioner needs.