Understanding Empathy in Design: Part 2

Improving Your Empathy

Practicing empathy is an effort that can make a significant impact on bettering your people skills. Understanding others opens the door to others wanting to understand you — and through this you can begin to build cooperation& collaboration.

Building empathy is all about looking past yourself and your own concerns. In seeing beyond yourself, you’ll find that the world is a very large place with much to discover and appreciate. Here are a few ways that you can further build & develop empathy. 

  1. Put aside your viewpoint, try to see things from the other’s point of view. In doing this, it becomes much clearer that other people aren’t trying to be evil, unkind, difficult, or unreasonable. They are simply reacting to a situation the best way that they can with the knowledge and context that they possess.
  2. Validate the other person’s perspective. Once you begin to understand why other’s believe what they believe, acknowledge it. This doesn’t mean you have to agree – it just means accepting that others carry opinions and beliefs that are different from your own, and they have good reasons for doing so.
  3. Listen, don’t interrupt. Listening is not about waiting for your turn to speak. It’s about taking into account what they say and what they do not say, including body language. Often a person expresses one thing verbally (such as enthusiasm), but their body language might tell a different story (arms crossed).
  4. Be fully present when you are interacting with other people. If you’re checking your email or scrolling through your phone when someone is talking to you, you will miss what is being communicated. According to a study by Professor Emeritus, Albert Mehrabian of UCLA, the things we say only account for 7% of what we are trying to communicate. The remaining 93% of the message is contained in our body language and tone of voice.
  5. Cultivate your curiosity. For example, what can you learn from someone who holds the opposite point of view as you? Curious people ask a lot of questions, which in turn leads them to develop a stronger understanding of the people around them.

Bringing Empathy into your design practice

Empathy MappingAs designers we must do our due diligence to step into the world of the users we are designing for. This is essential to the research process. It’s not enough to simply act like them, that isn’t where true understanding comes from. Instead, we must feel their real problem, understand their behavior and figure out the mental model behind it.

Here are a few tools you can put into your design empathy toolbox; a few places to start when building empathy with the people you are designing for:

Netnography. Probably one of the fastest methods for diving into your empathy journey is online research. Netnography is the digital version of enthography, wherein you can collect qualitative insights on peoples’ preferences, likes, dislikes, and desires within a given solution. By exploring online forums, social media, business/product review websites, and so on, you can use these conversations as data to reveal user needs and wants.

Interviews. Talking to users is the most direct way to understand them, and not only design for them but alongside them. These conversations take a lot of practice to get right, it can be easy to lead the conversation without getting them to think critically or open up to you. Despite that, once you can get to a place where your users feel comfortable talking to you without bias, interviewing is an excellent method. The good news is, you really only need around 6-7 interviews before you can start to see real patterns emerge in terms of your users’ needs and pain points. This input is invaluable for ideation.

Empathy Mapping. This is probably the most empathetic tool in the toolbox. Empathy mapping involves putting yourself in the mind of your users and reflecting upon their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. The takeaway from this activity is a situation-specific compilation of user fears, anxieties, wants, needs, and hopes – ultimately a beacon to point you towards the right path in designing the user experience.

A persona is a fictional character that you create based upon your research, in order to represent the different user types that might engage with your solution in a similar way. A persona does not describe a real person, but it does describe real data collected from multiple individuals. This turns your data from cold facts into digestible, understandable information in “human form”. These help drive and maintain the focus throughout a project on who you are designing for.

Journey Mapping. Mapping the experience of your users can help you to identify gaps in the experience and opportunities to improve or even delight them. Journey mapping is a visual tool wherein you map the users actions horizontally and their feelings vertically in a table. This really makes visible problems that may exist in the user’s workflow, happy moments, and areas for improvement.

Sharing is caring. Of course, what is the point of all of these learnings if not to be shared? This may seem obvious, but it’s all too frequent that teams fail to translate their empathy learnings into inspiring, actionable insights that drive truly user-centered solutions. The more people on your team who understand the feelings and challenges of your targeted users, the more successful your product can be in the end. Ultimately, anyone involved in the creation or design of a product or service aimed at another human being should understand empathy. As Tim Brown of IDEO so eloquently puts it, “Empathy is at the heart of design. Without the understanding of what others see, feel, and experience, design is a pointless task.”


2400 Old Brick Road, 42 Glen Allen, VA 23060