It’s time for product designers to start thinking differently. Why? We have all experienced how great design, coupled with technology, has the potential to make the world a better place. However, what is not very clear is how great design happens or what it entails.
To be successful at digital product design, designers need to create seamless experiences for users. They need to create journeys that feel effortless. Ideally, the design should allow the user to do more with less thought, and without frustration. A designer cannot achieve this without a strongly?developed sense of empathy. Putting yourself in the end users’ shoes allows you to move beyond a superficial understanding to a real appreciation of users’ feelings and behaviors.
The Empathetic Approach
We live in a skeptical, technology-driven world. It’s easy to let a mechanical process override thoughtful consideration of the human experience. Empathy helps us combat the bad habit of relying on mechanics to define form and function, making it an essential approach to any design strategy. Think about your product’s solution – what is it ultimately helping users accomplish? How will users feel when they use it? Will they be confused? If so, why? If this seems unnecessarily touchy-feely to you then reflect on the last time you struggled with an app or a website. That frustrating emotion is the very core of what drives great designers to be empathetic and sensitive to even the most superficial emotions.
Designers cannot even begin to think about how a product will best interface with its users until they have a thorough understanding of the users themselves. The designer must navigate the product the way a user would in order to feel what the user’s experience is really like. Having empathy for the end user is what leads to breakthroughs in experience design, and in turn, informs an enhanced user interface design. It’s all one continuum.
The Process Of Empathy
So how should empathy inform design strategy when you are building a digital product? Let’s walk through a real-world example to see how this works in context.
At Fresh Tilled Soil, we were presented with the opportunity to work with FlashNotes, an online marketplace and collaboration destination for students looking to share class materials and resources. As nationwide demand for the online platform had grown rapidly, FlashNotes needed to revamp its website and deliver students a new, dare we say, fresh experience.
As we delved deeper into this work, we researched different behaviors of FlashNotes’ users to understand their motives and fears around sharing class notes and resources. Are they nervous about getting in trouble with a professor? Do they attend every class? Do they prefer to study in groups, or do they work alone? We also developed several detailed personas of different college students who use the site. This process allowed us to discover new information that exposed the needs, habits and practices of students of all calibers and work ethics.
We were able to strategically map and recreate the website to deliver users a seamless experience because we put them first. This experience mapping process is a little like drawing a geographic map of the local landscape with all the obstacles and pitfalls illustrated along the available paths.
There have been many conversations around whether empathy can be taught. Is it something you are born with, or is it something you adapt to? According to several studies, empathy is a fundamental part of our social and emotional development, a trait that can be more highly developed in some individuals than others. It’s certainly a requisite to a successful career as a designer or innovator, or those of us developing technology intended to improve the lives of our peers.
According to a University of California study focusing on empathy, “the understanding that others have thoughts, beliefs and emotions that may differ from our own is referred to as ‘theory of mind’… the understanding that others have an internal mental landscape that differs from our own is a critical step in development and usually comes on-line at around age 4.”
In another study, this time from the University of Miami, the different factors that can contribute to the rate at which children develop empathy are identified as being genetics, neural development and different socialization tactics, including facial mimicry and parent-child relationships.
Ultimately, to be an empathetic person, one must understand that others think differently. If you are struggling to find your more compassionate self, there are habits you can practice that will help surface your inner empathy. Roman Krznaric, author of “Empathy: Why it Matters, and How to Get It” and founder of the world’s first digital Empathy Library, identified five key ways to be more empathetic:
- Start listening and reflect on how others are feeling.
- Abandon stereotypes and snap judgments – genuinely ask others how they are doing.
- Read novels and watch films that give you different perspectives on other people’s journeys.
- Surround yourself with empathetic people, especially in the office.
- Support teaching our youth empathy early.
Producing remarkable design can lead to more empathy in the world. For example, thoughtfully designed products, innovations and systems can create a less chaotic culture. Newly developed technologies can save lives and affect positive change in the world. The ability to identify with users helps us help people – and that’s key.
Think about the product you are developing and reflect on the ripple effect it has on society. Are your product’s users using their new smart phones to make important phone calls or schedule critical appointments? Are they navigating a foreign new city with an interactive or visual map you designed? Are they relying on a new technology to help guide them to better physical and mental health that you mapped?
If you ask a product team what they value most about working with experience designers, they will always give you the same answer: they value the designer’s ability to challenge their assumptions and help them see their problems differently. That requires empathy. Product professionals are not only looking for designers to help them solve their problems, but empathetic partners that can help them explore new horizons.
The opportunities we have to spread empathy through intelligent design are limitless. After all, if a product is well-designed, a user shouldn’t even have to think about it. Embodying empathy helps us develop technologies that are exceptional products and solve problems for real people. The relationship between technology and empathy is the crux of good design, and it’s imperative that as designers we remember that.
(Lead image source: Oliver Quinlan)