Empathic Design: A Beginner’s Guide

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empathic-design

Designers devote considerable energy to leveraging design techniques to engage users. Empathic design represents the underpinning of such efforts. In this post, we define empathy, make the business case for empathic design, and outline research and design techniques that contribute to empathic design.

Empathy Explained

If you work in user-centered design, you are likely predisposed to thinking about others’ needs. To this end, designers focus on empathy, commonly defined as the ability to see the world as others do, to see it through their eyes.

This widely accepted definition is necessary and reasonable, but also incomplete. If we hope to gain a deep understanding of how others think and feel, we need to go further as Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki explains in a recent episode of Hidden Brain: “Oftentimes, when we encounter someone who’s different from ourselves and has an opinion or a viewpoint maybe that we even abhor, it’s easy to just view them as being either obtuse or dishonest or both. But that’s a mistake. I think empathy at a deep level is the understanding that someone else’s world is just as real as yours.”

The key to genuine empathy is the phrase “someone else’s world is just as real as yours.”

Empathic Design

What does this mean for UX designers and researchers? It means reaching beyond standard questions about user needs to a deeper level of understanding. Instead of limiting the question to what users want to see on an auto insurance web site, we should ask questions such as:

  • How do users think about money and their financial situation?
  • How do they think about financial security?
  • What do they fear?
  • How do users feel about insurance companies?
  • How much value do users place on auto insurance?
  • What do users do when they need auto insurance?

These types of questions should inform all aspects of the design process. The entire team must explore by asking hard question such as those listed above while engaging in continuous research.

3 Techniques to Help You Start

Such research must include an emphasis on user (not design) artifacts and thoughtless acts.

1. Look for Artifacts

empathic-design-artifact

Artifacts are items such as cheat sheets, checklists, post-it notes, timers, watches, tools, anything that users leverage to complete tasks and solve problems. Such artifacts are often essential to understand the user’s experience because they literally show how users interact with a UI, a machine, or a medical device. That’s why it’s essential for UX researchers to carefully examine the user’s environment (office, cubicle, imaging lab, the cab in a large piece of each moving equipment, the area around a machine operated by a manufacturing technician, etc.)

2. Uncover Thoughtless Acts

Artifacts are conscious creations. In contrast, according to IDEO Executive Design Director Jane Fulton Suri, thoughtless acts refer to things like hanging sunglasses on their shirts or wrapping a red sticker around a key ring to distinguish it from someone else’s keys. As Dam and Siang explain in Design Thinking: Getting Started with Empathy, when users engage in thoughtless acts “it’s a sign of how an imperfectly tailored environment forces an almost unconscious reaction on their part.”

Artifacts and thoughtless acts often point to gaps in design. In a UI, that could mean a critical step is missing or, at the very least, not obvious to users who need to complete a task. With heavy equipment, a cheat sheet could point to a critical safety lapse. Take the time to locate these artifacts. The life you save might be the next person who uses that equipment.

3. Re-define Inclusive Design

Rigorous research is essential. Equally important and perhaps more challenging is shifting our mindset as designers to an expansive view of inclusive design.

A study about soccer fans makes the point.

In condition 1, fans of the Manchester Football (soccer) club were asked to describe why they loved the Manchester Team. They were then told that they could watch films of matches in another building on campus.

  • While walking across campus, they saw a runner who appeared to twist his ankle and was writhing in pain (the runner was acting).
  • When the person was wearing a Manchester jersey, participants stopped to help.
  • When he was wearing a Liverpool jersey (Liverpool was Manchester’s archrival), they stepped right over the guy.

In condition 2, fans of the Manchester Football club were asked to describe why they loved soccer, what made it such a great sport. They were then told that they could watch films of matches in another building on campus.

  • While walking across campus, they saw a runner who appeared to twist his ankle and was writhing in pain (the runner was acting).
  • When the person was wearing a Manchester jersey, participants stopped to help.
  • When he was wearing a Liverpool jersey (Liverpool was Manchester’s archrival), they also stopped to help.

By changing what they asked study participants to describe, why they loved their team to why they loved soccer, psychologists gave participants the opportunity to shift their thinking about who was part of their in group. In the second condition with a larger in group, Manchester Football fans were more likely to help someone even when that person was wearing the rival team’s journey.

By expanding the idea of inclusive design beyond narrow user needs, designers can reach and engage more people.

The Business Case for Empathic Design

The ideas here are not ivory tower theories. Rikke Dam and Teo Siang explain the role of empathy in profitability. Solutions created without insights from users risk being ignored by the market. They cite MP3 players as one example. Many have come and gone. Only the iPod succeeded because it offered more than a technological solution to portable music. It made the experience pleasant and enjoyable. People wanted to buy it.

The authors cite Frank Chimero, author of The Shape of Design, who writes: “People ignore design that ignores people.”

Chimero’s brilliant observation places the sometimes elusive concept of empathy in context. If successful design means meeting the user’s genuine and immediate needs, designers must shift their thinking.

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