So you think you know Empathy

As a design researcher, some of the skills I’ve focused on building are my interviewing skills. There’s a lot of science behind how we ask questions, how to get shy session participants to open up and how to listen very, very carefully to ensure we understand what’s being said.

A key goal in interviewing your users is to develop empathy for them so you can determine exactly what they need for a great user experience.

From Psychology Today, “Empathy can be defined as a person’s ability to recognize and share the emotions of another person… It involves, first, seeing someone else’s situation from his perspective, and, second, sharing his emotions, including, if any, his distress.”

Essentially, empathy allows us to walk a mile in our users’ shoes, which helps us ensure we’re developing a user experience that fits their needs rather than ours. It’s difficult to empathize with abstract feelings, so the key is to get out of the building and find out what your users are truly doing, thinking and feeling. Then think about what it would be like to think that way, to feel that way.

Recently I’ve noticed that many people mistake empathy for sympathy or compassion.

Compassion and sympathy are similar, in my mind, because both allow us to feel concern for the well being of other people, including our users. Compassion goes one step further than sympathy; it’s what drives us to help, care for and do good for other people.

It’s possible to feel sympathy without empathy. Think of how we feel when we have to squash a spider in our home. Perhaps if we’re also compassionate, we would catch and release the spider rather than killing it.

Likewise, it’s possible to feel empathy without sympathy. Psychopaths typically have no sympathy for their prey but use empathy well to trap them.

Having sympathy or compassion for your users can be both good and bad. Good in that you care about them, which might motivate you to continue pushing on your team to prioritize design research. Bad in that it can sometimes be difficult to say “no” to your users when they ask for specific features or for the design to be done a specific way because you really care about them.

Regardless of whether sympathy and compassion are good or bad for design, I don’t feel they are as important as empathy and are definitely not a substitute. Be sure you and your team know the difference between these three terms. Work to improve your user empathy with some great techniques such as using ethnographic studies, contextual inquires and great interviews to develop and share research-based empathy maps, personas and journey maps.


This is a repost from LinkedIn.