The case for empathy in UX Research : Through the lens of Mindhunter

[ Disclaimer : This article tackles a very specific and rather complex subject. It’s not intended to be comprehensive, but rather to be a fun way to approach the concept of empathy, and why it’s so important in UX and User Research in general.

I hope you’ll like it ! 👌 ]

Serial Killer Ed Kemper being interviewed by Special Agent Holden Ford.

Learning new things is great. No doubt about it.

But you know what’s better? Learning without even noticing it. Or at least, without even having the feeling that you’re putting a lot of work into it.

Guess what? I do believe there’s a lot to learn about empathy by simply watching David Fincher’s Mindhunter (2017).

This is pretty convenient because one might argue that empathy is probably the most critical skill for any UX person out there, and it’s a pretty tough one to master!

How do we get ahead of crazy if we don’t know how crazy thinks ?
 — Special Agent Bill Tench

Let’s dive right into it!

1. What is empathy?

First of all, a quick glance at a dictionary will return the following definition :

[The capacity of ] understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another […] without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.
 — Merriam Webster Dictionary

In a UX context, this means the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to aim at a sense of unity between yourself and your interviewees, and to understand at a deeper lever their problems, fears, concerns, etc …

This is pretty much what Special Agent Bill Tench means in the above quote from the series, though in a rather clumsy way.
Indeed — without fully grasping it — he realizes that they will never be able to prevent serial killers to act, if they don’t understand precisely what they have in mind, what they feel like, what triggers them, and how one becomes a serial killer.

In a UX/psychology terminology, he understands that he needs to uncover their mental model, to act more efficiently.

Not your average type of user interview.

2. Why is empathy so important?

Well, nice of you to ask! 
You probably guessed it, empathy is so important in UX because, if you lack empathy, you’ll get it wrong every single time.

Why ? Because :

You are not the user!
 — Famous UX Mantra.

Indeed, If you lack empathy you’ll fail to see what problems people are truly facing, what wakes them up at night.

Therefore, you’ll fail to provide solutions that could really change people’s life, as you will never really deal with the real pain.

Once again, Mindhunter provides a great example.

No one will ask Special Agent Holden Ford to kill someone to be able to fully understand how serial killers think and behave. This will instead be achieved by interviewing serial killers, and by empathizing with them.

Indeed— as the series goes — Holden understands that he needs to dig deeper than the gruesome acts of violence. That he needs to understand what events triggered this behavior to fully comprehend what’s at stake.

Once again, in a UX terminology, Holden is trying to find the root cause of the problem.

Holden as he starts uncovering what triggered Ed’s behaviour.

3. The pitfalls to avoid

I’ll try to highlight 2 of the main pitfalls I identify when it comes to empathy :

  • Overestimating your ability to empathize : 
    This particular one can have dramatic consequences, as it basically boils down to what I said wrote earlier about the lack of empathy.
    Overestimating yourself on this regards will only result in you missing the point every time.

For instance, in my everyday job @ crème de la crème, I have to be very careful not to overestimate my understanding of what freelancers think, feel or do. And this, even more so that I am myself working as a part-time freelancer.
Indeed, as I am working as a UX Researcher for a company which connects top freelancers and companies, I spend most of my days interviewing freelancers, trying to understand how to make their life better on (and outside of) the platform.

The trap is that ,working for a freelancing platform gives me access to knowledge about freelancing and about our product that very few freelancers could easily reach.

Therefore I have to be extremely careful not to interpret what the interviewees say or think in the light of my own personal experience. But rather making sure I’m actually empathizing with them.

How do I avoid It?
The short answer is : Keep digging deeper & keep asking “why?”. 
When you think it’s enough, ask one more time :)

  • Over-Empathizing with your subject :
    For most of us in the UX field, this might seem a bit far-fetched, but basically this happens when you went too far in empathy and you start to feel like you’re actually your subject. Or, in other words when empathy becomes a double-edged sword.
    This can have dramatic consequences, especially on yourself, as this can feel pretty overwhelming or even painful.

For instance this could be the case if you’re conducting user research on people who had a very impactful life experience that you can somehow relate with (disease, pregnancy, etc …).

Sometimes hearing their story, and their feeling can make you relive certain aspects of your own life experience, even though it’s only remotely or loosely connected to yours.

There’s a pretty good example of this in Mindhunter, when you can feel that Holden is getting pretty overwhelmed by what he sees and hears, and he ends up having a hard time disconnecting from his professional life. This even contributes to his relationship with Debbie going down the drain, and to making him almost question his own sanity.

How do I avoid It? 
Take a step back and remember that “You’re not the user” also applies in this case.

See … do not over-empathize.

All in all, I think empathy is a gift that some people are growing up with, but also a soft skill that you can train.

I would say that it all begins with actually being curious and to really care about what people have to say. Not just by listening, but rather by trying to understand.

In a sense, all you need is to go out there and talk to people. And I use the term “people” for a reason. Because, at the end of the day, you’ll start to get better at empathizing when you’re not interacting with users, but with actual people :)

4. Going further

Of course, If you haven’t watched Mindhunter yet, do yourself a favor !

What is empathy (2014) by Seung Chan Lim (Slim)| Pretty comprehensive article that inspired me a lot when writing this very medium post.

Empathy is not enough (2018) by Hareem Mannan | An Interesting thought on what actual empathy is

Seeing user research in Mindhunter (2017) by Michael Le | Another interesting way of learning about user research using Minhunter

Ten skills you need to be a UX Unicorn (2016) by UX Much?™ | A great overview of some of the skill you might need be become a better UX professional (on top of empathy).

Ten lessons I’ve learned about my first 6 month as a solo UX Researcher by Adrien Talal | Because a tiny bit of auto-promotion never hurts ;)

That’s it guys, I hope you enjoyed this short article ! 🙏
If you did, make sure to leave a clap or two ! 👏

— Adrien