Empathy ≠ Sympathy in design

understanding users from their point-of-view

Brandon Jacoby
Dec 2, 2016 · 2 min read

Let’s start by taking a look at the difference between these two words, outside of the context of design.

sympathy (n.): feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune

empathy (n.): the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

So what does this look like in design?

To me, sympathy would be an added layer of helpfulness on top of something that is otherwise difficult to use. For example, a filtering tool for an online shopping platform. Let’s say a user has a hard time navigating, finds the interface too complex or too confusing. The sympathetic solution would be to feel bad for said user, and give them something that would help.

Don’t get me wrong, this solution can work well in a lot of situations, but what a lot of products seem to be lacking is empathy. Seeing the problems from the users’ point-of-view. Understanding how a user feels, or what a user needs, and working around that. When looking at the same example, an online shopping platform, how would this empathetic approach work? In a word, intelligence. Something along the lines of knowing that the user usually sorts products by the cheapest option first, so it would feature the current sales going on. Knowing that the user has only purchased black clothing in the past, so those dark items are seen first next time they visit. The list of examples goes on and on.

The empathy approach adds another level to products, making the user feel like they are being taken care of. Subsequently, often times designs can have a combination of both sympathy and empathy, and the result of this is marvelous.

Brandon Jacoby

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Product Designer in NYC, working on Cash App at Square. Photographer, sometimes. Coffee drinker, always. Former Student-Athlete.