Understand your Users Better by Getting to Know ‘Empathy Blockers’​

Shweta Narendernath
Quick Design
Published in
6 min readFeb 18, 2019

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Photo by ALLEF. VINICIUS via Unsplash

There is no shortfall in the ‘understand your user’ narrative we find ourselves in, these days. No matter your leaning, on the importance of this much talked about skill, time and again we clearly seem to tilt the scale heavily in favor of people or businesses, who are continuously tuned-in to the needs of the people around them. Turns out, we all have our moments of struggle on the path to cultivating this skill of being ‘empathetic’, irrespective of the role we play in this world.

Today, a big part to gaining better user understanding is indeed being answered by tech businesses in myriad ways, mostly through a gamut of software offerings, which essentially sum up to bringing us the ‘closest possible zoom-in’ on all things user behavior.

The continuing problem however is, even after achieving the finest level of zoom-in on our users, the answers don’t necessarily arrive — in spite of the IT gear we deploy, or the data we manipulate. In times like these, when we tend to look outside for clarity, I often find myself inundated with maxims like “get more empathetic” “learn to be more empathetic’ or alike. Oh yes! I think…

In my attempt to start looking for another helpful framing that metaphorically speaking, can give me a new lens, I arrived at the questions below:

“What are the gaps to understanding users”

“Where are the empathy blockers”.

This new framing, helped me work my way onto new pathways to creating more cognitive space, if not better solutions.

The 100% empathy experiment

A study was conducted on a group of artists to understand what should be incorporated in a painting to consider it world-class. An elaborate exercise was undertaken to help curate best-in-class paintings for the gallery’s special collection. After an extensive selection process, the final set of artworks were opened for public viewing.

Opening Day Result: A failed showcase.

Turns out, even the artists from the above interview group were equally disappointed with it¹

So, what happened?

How can an entire study, designed towards being empathetic from beginning to the end, having ensured ample time to consider every individual’s wants, needs, and desires, fail so bad?

Behavioural Scientists answer: Gap of Human Wants — Needs.

Being empathetic doesn’t mean one has to fully agree with user feedback and incorporate it into the solution space. Being empathetic means to interpret inputs wisely, given that we work with a highly intelligent group of irrational beings. So, inputs don’t always equate to solutions.

In reality, most of us would have a hard time to accept this irony of human behaviour and I believe a huge part of user research, funnily enough, boils down to ‘figuring this irrationality’.

Understanding human behavior lies in understanding the irrationality gaps.

Understanding irrationality gaps is being able to interpret the gap between Wants and Needs.

Understanding Wants — Needs further is interpreting human behavior along the see/think/hear/feel dimensions, or in other words empathy matrix².

Now, let’s look at how to address gaps or blockers to gain improved user understanding, by looking at two different spaces.

Where are the monsters?

Not too long ago, my 3-year-old was pointing at monsters in a place nearby. I’ve almost always instinctively replied with, “there are no monsters”.

Every time we went to this place she spoke of these monsters. Clearly, by responding in the same manner over and over again, I wasn’t helping. I questioned myself, “How empathetic was I truly being?”, This haunted me and I knew it was time to figure out a better way to help my little girl understand.

Coincidentally, at that time, I came across a powerful question from author Robin Grille³ in which he asks “As a culture, why is it that we are so fond of songs, rhymes, and conversations that continue to tell our children to “shhh”, “hush little baby” and alike, every time our child cries?”.

This was asked in response to parents seeking guidance towards building better connections with their children.

“Listening is at the heart of connection” — Robin Grille

Doesn’t understanding our users also come down to the same principles?. He further went on to say, that, the very act of saying “stop crying” is enough to put a blocker between us and the children we care to connect with.

“Stop crying” he explains, is in essence, a hiding strategy subconsciously played out by parents to avoid listening to their kids. This was it, my moment of clarity!.

I started to see that my reflective reply in the case of the monsters, was in fact, a denial strategy, an ‘empathy blocker’. I figured I would do better by revealing that there were indeed no monsters. Not mere telling, but showing. Next time, I simply opened the closed door which was leading to a staircase and voila, I’ve not heard of the monsters since then.

The empathy blocker lens helped me revisit the context I already built, the content (which turned out to be the blocker) and reframing it (from telling to showing)

Yellow or Black — A Meta Experiment design.

When Sony introduced the boom box, the company gathered a group of potential customers and held a focus group to determine their preferential choice of product color: Yellow or Black?. After some discussion amidst the group of likely buyers, everyone agreed that they would better respond to yellow.

“Excellent”, thought the facilitator.

Shortly before the end of the session, he/she thanked the participants and as a token of gratitude asked every one potential customer to pick up a free boom box on their way out. Two stacks of boom boxes were arranged at the exit: Yellow and Black, and guess what happened? Nearly every person took the black boom box⁴.

Clearly, this experiment reveals how a particular method of asking’ (moderated experiments) can block the very empathy one is trying to uncover. An iteration of the same ask, not just designed to capture, but to also showcase the irrational behaviour by asking within the natural setting of the participant (read: unmoderated experiment, asking them to pick up their boom box at the exit time) helped uncover the gap between their choice selections before and after.

Knowing that every moderated experiment would yield inputs that are far from ensuring success; The ‘empathy blocker’ lens, helps one understand the inherent blocker in the design of an experiment and as in the above case include another nonintrusive experiment within an experiment, to gain better insight.

I found this to be a remarkable example and a milestone case study which reveals how, by reframing one’s view to becoming aware of the empathy blockers, we can incorporate elements in the design that help delineate irrationality, bringing shared understanding with various stakeholders.

Stumbling blocks within user research is a common occurrence in a fast-paced iterative tech world, we find ourselves reflecting upon project failures as a natural part of dealing with “irrational humans”

Ask instead:

“What are my empathy blockers?”

It helps create cognitive space for coming up with new/alternate pathways and gain the courage to undertake research despite its shortcomings.

Here, I’ve detailed out two examples, to help you become more aware of ‘Empathy blockers’ in different life situations by looking at Process or Content dimensions within designed experiments, and how to think of redesigning with the goal to better understand your user.

Foot Notes

1. I tried looking through every annotation over my 2018’s most prolific reading year yet, but still missing the details of the source for this one. If any of you have come across this experiment, pls help me with the source details.

Thank you for the empathy :)

2. Framework commonly used by design thinkers referred to as the Empathy map or X-plane originally written by Dave Gray.

3. I was first introduced to the term “empathy blockers” in the book Heart to Heart Parenting — Robin Grille and I’ve been able to put a lot of the strategies discussed therein in my parenting role with success.

If you are looking for an excellent excerpt from this book, I would highly recommend a visit here.

4. From the book: Principles of Customer Experience — Matt Watkinson

Would love to hear your thoughts here or on Twitter @shwetnaren

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Shweta Narendernath
Quick Design

Believer in the design of the universe, Skeptic of the design of everyday things, Living by better design.