Michael Owen
Mar 28, 2016 · 3 min read

First time walking, first time riding a bike without stabilisers, first time actually listening to their parents… being parents of two small children means my wife and I spend most weekends taking pictures of our kids and their achievements, whether small or big.

My wife isn’t the best photographer. I’ve noticed she rarely takes photographs of our youngest child from their eye level. My wife’s pictures, towering above my 1 year old child lack a bit of perspective. My daughter sees the world from her height. My wife photos don’t capture that and so the viewer can’t empathise with my daughters world.

Empathy is great for user-centered design

Empathy and getting on people’s level really is design at its core. Designers solve problems and we are best placed to do this when we can understand who our users are and empathise with what they want to do.

Working as a designer in the UK Government, I spend a lot of time talking with users. It helps me better understand them and their needs. Meeting users is awesome.

User-centered design to me means making something everyone can use. This might be a crazy thought for many, as putting the extra effort into achieving this — like focusing on accessibility — is certainly a lot more work. Without empathy for every users needs, it’s hard for designers and makers to see that the reward is worth all the extra work.

Empathy is great for building new things

Change is something people don’t handle too well. It can bring about stress and anxiety. As designers, we sometimes get caught up in changing things when there isn’t a user need to do so. It’s in our nature.

I am always making changes to my own site. About once a month I find myself wanting to tinker — change an animation here or a colour there. Does my tinkering improve the site? Probably not. What I am doing is meeting my own need — which is to feel I am making progress.

When there is a real user need behind change, understanding your users current mental model will help you change a product gradually. Seeing change from a user’s perspective will help identify what can change and when. Empathy will also help to identify any gaps in user knowledge. You can then progressively reveal new functionality at the right pace, reducing user anxiety and stress.

Empathy is great for working in teams

Working with others is the best way to solve problems but every team has their problems. In situations where people aren’t working well together, I’ve found being empathetic to someone’s point of view is a great way to resolve conflict.

Google has spent time researching what makes a good team. There’s an excellent, if long write-up of Google’s findings in the New York Times. One of the secrets of good teams, Google concluded, was high social sensitivities. In other words, team members who can empathise with how others feel.

Appreciating other points of view and understanding how they are feeling can help teams creatively solve problems and produce better work.

Good design is inclusive. It’s about solving problems for others. And that is why empathy is one of the most powerful design tools you have.

For more like this, please follow me on Twitter.

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