in user experience

Guerrilla empathy (or why we should probably stop banging on about users all the time)

If you work anywhere near digital design, someone has probably talked at you about empathy recently. Or you’ve talked at people about empathy. Empathy is a buzzword du jour.

Now, you and i know empathy is important but – the reality is, most of the people we work with don’t really believe that. They’d don’t. They think they do real work and they think that we are like tree-huggers but for users.

Banging on about empathy while they are trying to do their ‘real jobs’ doesn’t help get them to care about users more. We need to take a more empathetic approach to empathy.

Guerrilla empathy perhaps.

Here are some things we know.

  1. If we work in multidisciplinary teams where research is done regularly and everyone (including senior stake holders) observe users for at least 2 hours every six weeks, we make better services. Our friends at UIE (thanks Jared) did research to evidence this. Everyone watching users use our stuff regularly helps us make better stuff.
  2. People (say they) love to use evidence to make decisions. They love data. User research provides evidence. If you take a methodical, hypothesis led approach to user research, your team learns about what works and what doesn’t so it can make things work better. (Qualitative evidence is data too).
  3. Businesses care about business outcomes – this might be policy outcomes, compliance rates, fraud reduction, members sign ups or sales. We know that making all of these things work better is always easier if end users understand what you are trying to tell them and can actually do the thing you are wanting them to do. Good usability helps achieve business outcomes.

So, in doing user research (which can build empathy) there are at least three things that business wants that we can supply: better services, evidence for decision making and achieving business outcomes.

We need to talk more about these three things.

And then we need to not let them forget the bit in part 1 that requires them to come observe real users regularly in order for it to work. And we need to make sure that we do the work in a way that really focusses on delivering these benefits for the business. And then you have a much more compelling reason for people to come observe users.

Get people to observe end users regularly in order to meet their business objectives and – unless you have an organisation full of sociopaths – empathy will naturally follow. Without you even mentioning it.

An empathetic team is transformational. But empathy is difficult to sell – especially to the senior stakeholders who need it the most. Business outcomes are not hard to sell.

Do empathy by stealth. Stop talking about empathy. Let empathy be the by-product of helping your organisation meet its objectives through user research and demonstrate this by taking a methodical, collaborative, hypothesis driven approach to your work.

Then stand back and wonder, yet again, at empathy’s power to transform teams and organisations.

  1. Couldn’t agree more with all youve written. But getting senior people – the ones with the budget and KPI’s and performance objectives – to attend user research is a struggle we’re failing at (in UK Government). It is ALL about the numbers using a service and far less about the quality of that service. There’s a blindness to the truth that people will return to use good quality services but avoid poor quality ones as much as they can – until they have no real option other than to use the service however good or bad it is.

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