Designing With Empathy Not Sympathy

I know there are tons of articles and books out there discussing empathy and what it means. I won’t go into the definition but if you don’t know start here.

Empathy is not sympathy. Saying I sympathize with you is saying, I have no clue or no experience to help me understand you right now so I am just making a guess. If a friend is feeling down because their dog just died and you have never had a dog before or experienced death of a loved one, you can only really sympathize with them. However, there is a way to gain more understanding about how they are feeling without losing a dog yourself. More on that later.

In terms of design, to be great designers, you need to have empathy. Yeah, yeah, yeah, you have already been told this before. But the problem is many products are not designed with empathy but rather with sympathy (in some cases apathy but let’s save that for another post.)

What I mean to say is you only think you understand your users but if you haven’t done the research such as talk to them and understand their concerns, their pain points, watched them as they use your product, then you can only guess what they must be feeling. When you only guess based on your own world view, you sympathize. There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach; sometimes it’s all you have (no research budget, no access to target users, etc). But if you want your users to trust you more, you must find a way to empathize with them.

Back to the friend who lost the dog. The least people do is say “I am sorry for your loss.” But if you really want to understand, you get your friend to talk to you about their dog, what they loved, the good times, the challenging times. Look at pictures and videos together as you allow them to tell you how they are feeling about each of those moments. You dig deeper and before you know it, you are feeling the pain of losing this dog as well. When you start to feel that pain, even for a moment, that is when you are entering into empathy. True, if you have lost a dog before, you are way ahead in the empathy department but can still learn more about your friend’s specific relationship with their dog. Your understanding of their pain means you can make better guesses about how to help them feel better.

So it’s not enough to just read reviews of your users complaining about the sign in flow being too complicated or that check out flow has too many steps. Sit with them and watch them. Ask them to talk out loud so you can understand their feelings. Read their body language so you can probe more about their feelings. This allows you to gain empathy that you will then use when you go back to design a new solution. You will have a greater understanding of their feelings so when you make some design tweaks, your guesses to how your users will react will be more informed. By empathizing we make better guesses.

Every time I hear a designer or developer say “I don’t find that confusing” or any “I” statement attempting to validate a design decision, I cringe. I know the great debate is around if designers are also users. Let’s just say we can be the target user, but we just represent one persona. What about the others? Maybe I did lose a dog before so I can understand my friend better. I know that having my dogs toys near me helped me feel better, but maybe your friend cries more when Fluffy’s toys are near. We are two people with the same experience but with very different reactions.

So test your guesses with your users. You want their reaction to be, “You get me!” Your friend who lost their dog, now feels they can come to you when they are feeling down and talk to you about it again. Your user who has problems getting content to load, now knows they can tell you about it and you will listen to them. They trust you so they invest in you more.

So just don’t stop at sympathy for your users. Dig deeper and empathize.