If there is only one attribute that each and every designer should learn to practice and develop, it is empathy.

As product and user experience designers, we must always remember that our work is not meant to be used for our own self-expression, or as a way to showcase our creativity. We are doing what we are doing to help align between the users needs and the business objectives, and the best way to do that is by using the power of empathetic listening and observation.

Why it is necessary to be empathetic in the design process?

Empathy in the design thinking process means to engage in user research activities that will help us understand the problem from the users perspective, and basically be able to step into their shoes and experience the product or service from their point of view.

Since designers usually have no direct connection to their users while working on projects, there is a sort of dissonance that put a barrier in between expected behaviors, and real use cases.

Without the ability to empathize with the users needs and pain points, or truly understand their goals, contexts, emotions and motivations, designers take a wild guess regarding how their users will interact with and experience the product or service.

Surfacing the underline constraints and needs of users help us find solutions that can improve their experiences.

People are coming from different backgrounds and cultures and we can’t assume that they will behave in the same way as we do or in the way we expect them to.

When and how can we use empathy in the design process?

Empathy can be practiced as part of our research in the pre design stages, and during the validation phase when we test our hypothesis with users.

Designers then need to take the role of researches and find as much possible data and information about the users which they can later on analyze and deduce into insights and potential solutions to be tested again with the users.

Empathetic listening and observation

Empathetic observation is a key part of the user research phase. Observing how users behave while they are interacting with a product in context, and relating to their problems and needs can validate or invalidate some or all of our assumptions about users expectations.

But even before we try our ideas and validate our assumptions, research methods such as contextual inquiries and users interviews can provide us significant amount of qualitative data to better understand our users. Interviews come with the caveat that not always what users says are what they actually do. The main reason for that is that when we interview users, we basically ask them to reflect on the past or speculate on the future.

  • When people are being asked about the past, their memory can be fallible or create new stories about the way we used a system.
  • When people are being asked about the future, it’s hard for them to envision a future usage of a specific system and in most cases they will revert to what they know.

So when we talk to users, we need to pay the same amount of attention to what is not being said  as much as we do to what is being said during those sessions, if not even more. To do that we have to develop our active listening and be more empathetic.

Get out of the building and meet real users

The main point is that designers must leave their desks and get out of the building to meet real people that are using the products or services they are designing.

“The best way for designers to relate to their users is to get out of the building and go talk to their users.”

Initial assumptions about our users are helpful, and can direct us towards a plan and a set of questions to go and seek answers for, but it must not come in place of user research.

Many designers and design teams skip that phase due to budget and time constraints, however there is no real merit in that argument, and  in reality having little data is always better than not having data at all.

It’s not necessary for our users research to be spread out on long periods of 6 months or a year, and it does not have to be costly. Guerrilla research methods are techniques that gather quickly and with minimum requirements initial data that will give us a better idea about our users compared to blind guesses that arise from our own biased assumptions and beliefs.

The pitfall of design without knowing your users

Making products without taking the time to really understand the people that will use them is like trying to shot in the dark. We may be lucky, and we may have a really good guess about their needs and wishes. But it is still a guess and risk that is not only dangerous for any company, but one that can be avoided too.

But this kind of luck is not sustainable and very hard to assess and measure.

A better thing to do is to take a user-centric design approach, and to empathize with our users problems and needs.

By immersing ourselves in the process of empathetic listening and observation through user-research, we can increase the chance of coming up with solution that solve our users problems and mitigate their pain points.


Nahum Yamin

A user experience designer living and working at Bangkok, Thailand. A coffee lover who likes to read and wonder about design business and technology, life and everything in between.

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