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The Problem With Empathy

“We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.” — Anaïs Nin

Ask any UX Designer about the importance of empathy in UX & I’m sure they would be able to clearly explain what it is & why it is important to you.

That’s because user-centred design, design with the user based at the heart of product design decisions, has become the dominant school of thought in the UX world.

User-Centered Design

And it seems pretty obvious why, but let’s briefly clarify why:

There’s a reason it’s not called teapot-centred design or you-centred design because, at the end of the day, the product needs to be used. Ideally by a specific, substantial group of users.

The problem with something-else-centred design would be that nobody would use the product. A teapot cannot pick up & use your product. It has no use for it. Similarly, although you as an individual designer may use the product, if it’s only relevant for you as an individual, your product isn’t going to be successful.

The key to user-centred design, on the other hand, is that you are always, in some form, attempting to create a product that is going to provide value for whatever specific group of users you are trying to attract as customers.

Yet, despite this, we still tend to fail to place the user at the centre of decisions. And that’s because empathising with another person is really, really hard.

We can talk about it & about different techniques & about who they are & what they want, but it’s still really, really hard to understand somebody else on a deep level.

Trying to understand 10,000+ users on a deep level, considering the complexity & diversity of human thought & experience? Impossible.

The best we can hope for, therefore, is to improve our ability to empathise with others on a continuous basis.

3 Techniques for Being More Empathetic

  1. Be more observant

We live in such a frenetic, complex world that we tend to spend most of our days in a constant state of distraction & high alert. Add the complexities of everyday, big city life & we find ourselves constantly worried about the future or reflecting on the past.

A recent Harvard study estimated that we spend 47% of our waking life lost in thought. That’s half of your day. Every day. And half of your waking life.

And, yes, some of that thinking is important, but most is pretty irrelevant upon reflection. That time you worried about what you were gonna eat when you got home? Or about whether you left the heater on?

And the time we spend lost in thought is time that we are not present, observing the world around us.

This makes being empathetic difficult, because we fail to observe & deeply think about a situation. Say, for example, a young homeless woman gets on your Metro carriage & asked for money. You might glance up from your phone for a millisecond to look at them, but you’ll return to scrolling your Newsfeed without a thought.

If, however, you had stopped to observe this unfortunate individual, you may have actually started to empathise & think about the hardships she must face, living on the street every day, & the unfortunate circumstances that may have got her there.

Meditating every morning, blocking your use of social media, just going for a walk. There are endless techniques to be more present & observant. Remove the distractions & you’ll find yourself better able to empathise with others.

  1. Get to know your users better

This is clearly key to building empathy with your users. It’s been written about in more detail in other articles, but here are a few techniques you can explore:

a. Use an empathy map to really delve into a user’s wants, thoughts & needs

b. Conduct user interviews

c. Hang out with your users informally to get to know them in their natural environment (this can provide great insights & ideas that a user interview cannot provide, as users are much more relaxed & don’t feel they are being tested)

  1. Question your assumptions more aggressively

On a micro-level, stop to ask yourself what assumptions you’ve made based on your own experience & of those around you.

You will likely find yourself falling victim to confirmation bias, assuming that the whole world acts like you do because you & those around you act in that way.

“Let’s add Facebook login because everyone using Facebook login nowadays.”

What about older users? What about in countries like Germany, where even the young are very careful of their online privacy?

“Views held to be a priori truths by important persons of society may in fact be relative and open to investigation.” — Alain de Botton On a macro-level, question not just what those around you assumes, but also what society assumes.

Western society tends to assume, for example, that profit is the primary motivation behind a company’s actions. But is that really true? What about charities? What about for-profit, altruistic enterprises, like Tom’s Shoes?

The more you stop to think & ask yourself such questions, the less you’ll blindly act on assumption.

We talk about building empathy with users, but we rarely act upon it.

We act upon it sometimes, but we find it really, really hard to properly empathise with others.

But you don’t need to beat yourself up over it. You can never truly empathise with others.

You can, however, get better at it by observing others’ lives more clearly, by really getting to know your users on a deep level & by questioning your own assumptions more aggressively.

And if you’re thinking, ‘well I do all this anyway’, then let me leave you with a few questions to think about:

What does your specific customer believe that you don’t believe?

What do they see that you don’t see?

What do they want that you don’t want?

What do they care about that you don’t care about?

(If you want to learn more about building empathy, then I would highly recommend trying out Seth Godin’s Marketing Seminar.)

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