Amid all the design tools, techniques, and data points, never forget that you are designing for real people.
If you work in or around the design realm, chances are you will have heard the word empathy thrown around a fair bit over recent years. We talk about having empathy and building empathy, and we even create empathy maps. But what exactly is empathy, and how does it fit into the design and the enterprise world?
A simple/simplistic answer would be to give you a straightforward dictionary definition. Empathy has been defined as:
[Empathy is] the ability to understand and share the feelings of another
Okay, but what does this mean in reality for designers?
At IBM we teach our design recruits that to deliver a product or service that is going to resonate with people, you first need to develop a deep understanding of the people you are designing for.
This means that this understanding must not be superficial and not based on you, your colleagues or the people you designed your last product for. Nor should it be based on how you think people might behave, should behave or hopefully will behave.
To do this, you need to understand these people, their environment, their motivations, their goals, and their pain points. In short, we say, you need to develop empathy.
Being Empathetic is Not Always Easy
The trouble is, it is very natural for us to think we know best. The belief that our intelligence, training, intuition, previous experience, etc. is sufficient, means that we already know what the right solution is to a given problem. This is what we have to fight against if we are to learn to be genuinely empathetic. We have to get to put aside our ideas, beliefs, and previous experiences (i.e. avoid confirmation bias and the false consensus effect) and to only listen and learn.
We have to see as someone else sees and feel what someone else feels.
Another aspect that is vital to understand is that empathy involves feeling, not just thinking. The definition cited above was: “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another” not simply “the ability to understand another”. If we overlook this emotional aspect (the pathos part of the word), then we are not truly empathetic. This is why at IBM Design we run desirability studies to investigate and measure people’s emotional responses to stimuli such as product designs.
After all, it is all about people, their hopes, their fears, their perceptions and their emotional responses to things. So building empathy will involve our hearts as well as our heads.
As designers, it is not sufficient to solely rely on second-hand data points and generalised trends about our users. We have to start by putting in the time and effort to interact with some of the living, breathing people who we are attempting to serve.
Developing genuine empathy takes humility and effort. We have to learn / re-learn that “the map is not the territory”, that is, that our perception of reality is just that – a perception, not reality itself but our version of it. And as no two people have exactly the same map of reality, we have to train ourselves to actively listen to what the people we are designing for have to say. (We should, of course, also pay attention to the many nonverbal cues that make up a significant part of how we all communicate.)
Real empathy is not naturally fostered in focus groups. It’s not uncovered in analytics. It doesn’t start with personas or empathy maps. Real empathy starts with people – Pete Smart, UX Designer, speaker, writer
Challenges in the Enterprise Context
In the enterprise software realm, many factors can further complicate the path to developing meaningful empathy with our users. For a start, we are rarely designing products for just one type of user. Often our products have to support multiple different user roles (e.g. Sys Admins, Developers, Line of Business users, etc.) who will all tend to have their vocabularies, preferred tools, and ways of working.
On top of this, many of our products need to support highly complicated work flows, need to integrate with a variety of other products and technologies, and are often used for business critical purposes. Plus, as a global vendor, selling to markets around the world, we have to continue to challenge ourselves about what we tend to think of as “normal” and learn to be empathetic to potential cultural and language barriers.
Driving a Culture of Empathy
So far I have focused mostly on the individual designer. However, if we are going to release products that are truly meaningful to our users, we need to help all areas of our organisations become more user-centred.
So when you conduct research studies, consider filming them and then sharing snippets with your engineering colleagues and other stakeholders. Alternatively, invite them to sit in and observe the research activities for themselves. Either way, seeing how real people experience your products (including their frustration, confusion, satisfaction, and joy) will have so much more impact on your engineers than if you merely attempt to summarise your research findings to them afterwards.
When stakeholders begin to see, hear, and feel the pain that real users have, they will be more inclined to support efforts that seek to improve the UX.
Empathy is not just about our users. As designers, we need to build empathy with our engineering colleagues. Instead of just throwing our designs over the wall when we are done with them and complaining if “they” do not deliver exactly how and when we would like, we would be wise to take the time to get to know our colleagues. Understanding what is important to them, what tools and formats they prefer, and what pressures they face, will enable us to form better working relationships, which in turn will help us together produce better experiences.
At IBM, we have recently adopted the Net Promoter Score (NPS) index across the board to help us gather feedback from customers about how likely or not they would be to recommend a given product. As well as the other benefits that NPS brings, it is a great way of helping a whole company grow in its journey of developing greater empathy. No longer can individuals and teams work away on products without giving a thought to what the end users think of them, as now it is more explicitly everybody’s business to focus on exactly what our users think and feel about these products.
Again, we all tend to resist negative feedback – we so often deny the claim, or downplay it, or blame it on someone or something else. However, with the NPS method, we are obliged to pay attention to our customers’ “feelings” about our offerings, and to close the loop by getting back in touch with them to find out more and see what we can do to improve things. This can only be a good thing in terms of helping us all become more user-centred.
It Does Not Stop with Empathy
Empathy is vital to user experience, but it is not the end goal. We must not stop at empathy. Our user research and insights must be taken forward and put to good use.
It is no good having a design team with fantastic levels of user empathy if we do not ship a solution that is informed by and consistent with all of the user insights we have gained. Once we have learned how our users think and feel, how they approach tasks, what their primary goals and pains points are, etc., we must hold unswervingly to these insights and zealously fight for every product decision that will best serve our users.
We must not let empathy become just another buzzword or tick-box exercise in our overall design process. Empathy is not something you can just sprinkle in here and there at certain points in the process. It needs to be baked in, and a foundational part of all that we do. In fact, it needs to be a foundational part of who we are.
We now live in a time when user experience is often the main differentiator between products, that is, whether it is washing machines or phones or enterprise applications, there are often many similar products offering substantially the same functionality at very similar price points. To win in these situations, we have to provide great user experiences. And to do this, we first need to understand the stated and latent needs of our users, and this can only be done through empathy.
* Pictured in the header photo is one of our IBM User Researchers (Sasha Williamson) in action. Photo courtesy of Joe Sayer.
Want to learn more?
Are you interested in the managerial and strategic aspects of UX? The online course on UX Management and Strategy can teach you the necessary skills on the subject and earn you an industry-recognized course certificate to advance your career. If, on the other hand, you want to brush up on the basics of UX and Usability, the online course on User Experience might be a better fit for you (or another design topic). Good luck on your learning journey!