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The Importance of Empathy in UX Design

Portrait Maximilien Joannides
Maximilien Joannides
7 min read

Understanding empathy is a great start, but if you really want to build empathy into your user experience and increase usability, you will need to approach the design process differently

How to Build Empathy into Your Product

Understanding empathy is a great start, but if you really want to build empathy into your user experience and increase usability, you will need to approach the design process differently. Here are a few tips:

1. Listen More

We all know that asking users questions about their experience is a great way to get valuable information, but you also need to listen to what they say. Often, we “edit” what we hear if it does not match our own thinking. This negates the usefulness of the user interview. So when you ask for feedback from your early users and customers, make sure you really listen to what they say, even if you don’t like it or agree.

2. Pay Attention to Things Unsaid

Many people will give you great feedback when you ask for it, but some don’t. They prefer to “suffer in silence” rather than rock the boat. But the boat needs rocking if you want to build a better product!

So pay attention to things your users aren’t saying too. Are they avoiding some areas of your site? Not using certain tools or features? Maybe they are too complex or hard to use? Look closely at what people are saying with their actions too. This is not about your emotions either – so don’t see these things as a problem, but rather, as useful information you can use to build a better product.

3. Ask for Feedback Often and Regularly

The key to using the feedback you get from people is not to see this as a “one and done” process.

Make sure that your approach includes regular requests for changes. Use user interviews to make changes and adjustments, and then ask them what they think of those changes. Asking for feedback at every stage of the process, and then using that feedback to improve the user experience is how you go from an okay product to one that your users love.

Here are some tips to get the best feedback from testers and early users:

  • Ask them nicely – and assure them that they can be honest. Many people don’t want to offend you by telling the truth if the truth is not pleasant, but that’s exactly what you need
  • Ask them what they don’t like – the quickest way to get to the root of the problem is to ask for negative feedback. You might not like it, but it’s critical to building a better user experience
  • Ask specific questions – don’t ask for general information. Highlight a specific feature or tool, and ask for feedback on that particular thing
  • Give them time to respond – people usually need some time to think about their response in order to give you the most valuable information
  • Ask the right people – you want to ask people who best represent your users. Make sure your questions go directly to them

4. Adjust Your Attitude

When you are using empathy mapping tools to improve your product, you need to be sure that everyone knows they are doing YOU a favour. Make sure this comes across as a question rather than a command, and that you accept whatever is said graciously. Don’t let your emotions get in the way.

Yes, your product is your baby, and you want to protect it, but don’t allow that to cloud your goal: which is to build a better product and increase usability.

5. Be More Humble

Yes, you are very smart. Yes, your product is amazing, and it’s going to change the world. But you’re still just another human being. You need your users to give you feedback, so you can highlight things you might be blind to. It might be a humbling experience, but don’t let your ego get involved. Complete honesty can sting, but it’s critical to great product design.

6. Learn More About Empathetic Development Trends

Getting feedback is fantastic, and it’s always useful to get information from the user's perspective during a user interview or survey. But you also have to know what to do with that information.

Spend some time learning more about empathy mapping and how it can increase usability and improve user experience. Discover best practices for sifting through the information provided to find the really useful suggestions and allow them to steer you towards a better product design.

There are several podcasts and TED Talks about using empathy in UX design, so there are a lot of resources out there to get you started.

7. Learn What to Use and What to Ignore

Probably the most difficult thing about using empathy in design is understanding what is important and what is not. When you get feedback, look for trends. Ask a larger group of people for feedback, so you can identify things that come up frequently, and put those issues at the top of your to-do list.

Sometimes, you will get feedback that you can’t change right now. That’s okay too. Add it to a long-term wishlist and be sure to address it later.

You might also get suggestions that just can’t work with this version of your product. Again, they might be useful in the future, but right now, don’t let them cloud your mission. It’s easy to get obsessed with the things we can’t change, but you need to focus on the things you can.

Every round of user interviews and feedback gets you one step closer to perfecting your product. But you need to remember to focus on low hanging fruit first, and then work your way towards more complex issues.

This process can be hard on the emotions – especially when people don’t like the features you were most excited about. It does happen sometimes too. Take everything you discover as a lesson and keep your eyes on the prize: the best possible product you can deliver.

Use Empathy to Give People What They Want

Imagine if you could turn your hopes and wishes for any everyday product into reality. If companies that make products you use every day could somehow read your mind and make changes that you have always thought would improve the product, but never really expected to happen.

We can’t really do that in our day to day lives, but when developers use empathy mapping and emotional design to build better digital products, we can come close.

Building any product is about solving a problem. It’s about creating a tool that is as useful as possible. When we get that right, we end up with a product that is exactly what our target users want and need, and that means you have something that will “fly off the shelves” in terms of sales.

It may be a little harder to use empathy in your design process, but it will result in a better product. So put your pride in your pocket, ask people to tell you the brutal, honest truth, and use that information to increase usability and solve problems you didn’t even know existed.

Now that you know how to tap into the wants, needs and feelings of your user base, be sure to ask for detailed feedback regularly. It’s the best way to build the best product.