Designing with Empathy

Directors Desk

Aug 7, 2017 · 3 min read

Director’s desk is a series where I share my responses to real design questions that I’ve been asked by clients, partners, co-workers, etc. My answers here are a bit more tangential, but hopefully just as insightful!

Q: How can design be empathetic to a user who “doesn’t want to be there,” or who is grudgingly engaging with the site/product?

This question comes up fairly often and in different forms, and it seems to be rooted in the idea that empathetic, inclusive design and creative, innovative design are mutually exclusive. I wince a little whenever I hear it asked because, that couldn’t be further from the truth. This iteration of the question stuck with me though, because it captures an important point about designing with empathy: Not every person that is engaging with your product may be happy to be doing so.

Sometimes our work falls outside the realm of pretty portfolios and fun marketing sites, where the average user is a lot more complex. For example, designing an online course or learning module, or an interface making it easier to pay a parking ticket or file an insurance claim. In any of those cases users may be uninterested, annoyed, or frustrated before they even begin to engage with our product.

So the first step, is to make sure we have a clear understanding of those users and what their mindset may be. Often we find ourselves designing to suit an average user, and since the idea of an uninterested, annoyed, or frustrated user falls outside our idea of average, we end up considering that person to be an edge case. At which point, its easy to begin rationalizing not compromising design integrity for all, if only a few edge cases require a different experience. Because our understanding of average is idealized (hello unrealistic standards of beauty!) it skews our understanding of edge cases, and our product ends up not fully serving the needs of our whole audience.

We can’t always know everything about every person who will engage with our products but one way we can work to better understand our audience is to reframe our idea of average users and edge case by replacing the concept of an edge case with a stress¹ case. Edge implies a discrete few and doesn’t help paint a full picture. It seems like almost trivial semantics, but I’ve found that this simple mindset change helps inform a more comprehensive understanding of the full, unique audience. And once you have that, its a lot easier to design with your head and your heart.

When we take time getting to know who is using our products, considering not just personas but context as well, we begin to design not for users or customers, but for people. I like to take this idea even a step further and not refer to users as users at all. If I can, I identify and name the audiences and refer to them by name throughout the entire design process. For example, if the product is a learning module, design for students. If its an interface helping people pay their parking tickets more easily, design for citizens. This is another way that I remind myself that my design is serving real people, with all their messy complications.

Realistically, it’s unlikely that design will ultimately change someone’s feelings or their attitude. However, simple considerations can make an experience less intimidating, which can make big impact. For example: On-boarding questions can be used to create a conversational, personal experience. Clear goals, like progress bars and calls-to-action can help orient people within potentially arduous processes and provide a clear path through the content. Consideration of visual devices like contrast, color, and font size, can alleviate or prevent tension. And opportunities for providing feedback on the experience can give your users a voice.

When we design with empathy, we go beyond simply satisfying the needs of our audience—we create an environment where they, their time, and their attention is acknowledged and respected. But only when we have a clear view of who they are, can we do that successfully.

[1] For more info on stress cases: Design for Real Life, by Eric Meyer & Sara


Written by


design director, observer, and writer-downer of things.

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