The importance of empathy in design part 2

In The importance of empathy in design part 1 I discussed why it’s so important to consider empathy when it comes to designing.

But while it’s all very well preaching about empathy, what can you do to actually embed it into your process?

If you’re not sure, then you’re in the right place as in, part 2, I’m going to be discussing some of the techniques you can use to achieve this.

Ethnographic research

The website defines ethnographic research as research that “usually involves observing target users in their natural, real-world setting, rather than in the artificial environment of a lab or focus group. The aim is to gather insight into how people live; what they do; how they use things; or what they need in their everyday or professional lives.”

Ethnographic research is important because rather than requiring you to accept what people say they did after the fact (which can sometimes lead to inaccurate information), it allows you to establish meaning around relevant activities.

It’s like being a fly on the wall; it allows you to see what people actually do within a real context and timeframe — and knowing more about this is a real assets when it comes to building empathy.

Similar to ethnographic research is shadowing. This is where you tag along with people to observe and understand their day-to-day routines, interactions and contexts. This allows you to gain insights that show how a product might affect or complement a user’s behaviour.


Conducting extensive research is, of course, a tried-and-tested route when it comes to UX, but as Tim Brown points out, “It’s possible to spend days, weeks, or months conducting research of this sort, but at the end of it all we will have little more than stacks of field notes, videotapes, and photographs unless we can connect with the people we are observing at a fundamental level.”

It’s important that we have techniques to translate research into something we can practically apply to our design process, and creating personas, which can help you to empathise with how the user might feel about and interact with the sites you design, is a tangible way of doing this.

It is key that personas outline a user’s motivations and blockers — blockers are things that would stop a user from using your site in the way you want them to, and motivations are things that will drive the user further on through your experience.

Once you have built a persona/s, you can refer back to it/them throughout the design process to ensure you’re staying on track; for example, if you need to make a design decision and you’re not sure of the right way to go, you can ask yourself ‘What’s best for the person I am designing for?’.

This is just a top level view and there are lots of different types of information you can add to a persona; check back for a more detailed post on building effective personas.

Map emotions to your user journeys

Depending on their needs, customers will experience different emotions when they visit your site.

Imagine two different customers visiting a clothing retail site: the first customer is excited to buy a new t-shirt, while the second customer is angry and looking for details on why their delivery has not arrived.

These two users are naturally going to use the site in very different ways. They will also be expecting to see different content; small things that the first user might brush over could be incredibly frustrating for the second user.

It is important to design your site with these different emotions in mind, and consider how you want these users to feel at the end of the process. Try using Robert Plutchik’s emotion wheel (see below) which attempts to identify eight different primary emotions with different intensities and combinations of each, for reference.

When you create user journeys, map a user’s emotional response to each step. This will help the team to empathise with how a user will be feeling throughout the process of using a site, and design you solutions with these emotions in mind.

Ask ‘So what if’

Designer and research Ben Holliday, suggests that one way for design teams to build empathy with their target users is to ask, ‘So what if?’.

When you are designing a page or trying to think how a user might react to a piece of functionality, frame a question using this method, e.g. ‘So what if I needed to return a t-shirt?, ‘So what if my favorite jumper was out of stock?’, etc.

This will help you to feel a little empathy with the situation a user has found themselves in, and then design with this in mind.

Test with users

Last but definitely not least, I couldn’t write a blog post on building empathy with your users without mentioning the importance of user testing.

One often-used UX phrase that has really stuck with me is ‘Design like you’re right, test like your wrong’ — wise words.

It’s best if you can find users who fit the scenario you are designing for. So if, for example, you are designing a website that sells home insurance then you should try and recruit participants who are in the market for home insurance.

Testing doesn’t have to cost a lot and you don’t need to wait until you have a final design; in fact, it’s better to start testing as early as possible. Use quick and rough prototypes, and, if you don’t have time or can’t afford to recruit, get onto the streets and do some guerrilla test.

It’s not just about testing designs either as you can also test your IA Tree to see how easy your site map is to navigate.