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.

7 Responses to “Empathy – Essential Soft Skills for User Experience Practitioners”

  1. Dan Saffer September 3, 2010 at 1:35 am #

    I can’t say I agree. Many successful products starting with the car had nothing to do with genuinely caring for the user. Do you think Larry and Sergey had the kind of deep empathy for Google’s users? Facebook? The PC?

    Empathy is just one skill among probably a dozen, and definitely not the most important. Empathy doesn’t in any way guarantee a better final outcome, the way that, say, being able to communicate clearly your intent or frame the problem (both soft skills) do.

  2. Leisa Reichelt September 3, 2010 at 6:02 am #

    Dan, I think you’re saying that Empathy is not the most important skill a designer can have and that not all products have become successful as a result of empathy. And I agree with that – didn’t intend to suggest that either was the case in this post.

    The intention of this post is to suggest that empathy is an important skill that has perhap become under-rated or compromised as a result of some of the more ‘scientific’ feeling skills/tools we use. And also that empathy will make you a better designer, not necessarily guarantee that you’ll design great products.

  3. stephen harland September 8, 2010 at 5:36 am #

    The fact that many websites don’t pass a basic usability heuristic test means that designers ought to start feeling more empathy for the user.

  4. Darryl September 8, 2010 at 9:41 am #

    I agree that empathy is important. I think educating clients is the best place to start with this. Tell them that their website is not just all about them, but their users.

    That’s where I think the biggest problem with basic usability issues come in. Clients who don’t understand their users. Web designers should put their foot down harder on behalf of the users, but it’s tough when the client is paying to put the food on web designer’s table. When looking at it from another angle, the users are paying to put food on the client’s table, and it’s our role as web people, to make them see that.

  5. Francis Norton September 20, 2010 at 9:14 am #

    Empathy reaches the corners other motives can’t. Why else is the Steve Krug approach to user testing so effective? By screen-casting user tests live to the designers you’re showing real people in real time, almost forcing the designers to empathise with them.

  6. [email protected] September 28, 2010 at 4:32 am #

    I completely agree that empathy and genuine care for your customer and their pains will help you think outside the box, come up with creative alternatives and persevere to find soltuions to their problems not just.meet requirements and get paid. I see this often, where if a developer or designer lacks empathy, they view a client as external or other and its easy then to discount the ui ux problems that occur. Progress and enhanced functionality instead of usability drives many development efforts and the customer and their users suffer.

  7. Joshua Lay September 28, 2010 at 5:21 am #

    It can be a missing chunk to many companies.

    I believe you get to a point where you start regarding customers’ as numbers. Or an entity.

    It’s hard to empathise something with this almost detached relationship.

    Perhaps this is where a persona can play its part as well?

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