Empathy at Work

Empathy and Hope

You may find this hard to believe, but I’ve never once in my life met a person whose goal it was to purposefully create a terrible user experience. Granted, that may have been the occasional outcome of some efforts, but I’m positive that was not the intention.

What these people may have been unintentionally leaving out was empathy. And ditching personal empathy is something that anyone who works with more than one person on a design project is susceptible to.

To be clear, this is not about the empathic design process; it’s about plain old empathy.

Who Needs Empathy?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines empathy as:

the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

When creating an experience, UX designers are faced with multiple demands on their empathy. We must empathize with the business, we must empathize with the developers and system architects, we must empathize with the user — the list goes on.

The pull on us for empathy is so great that we can lose focus on where the balance of empathy belongs. We can end up tuning out empathy altogether and just try to get the work done.

“Habit is the great deadener.”

Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

The problem is it’s easy not to be empathetic with people. It’s easy to be self-centered and focused on the end goal rather than the end user. It takes a lot less mental and emotional effort to look at a deadline and just churn out work so you can hit it.

In a recent article on Smashing Magazine, the author posits that:

…the constraints of our design process can allow us to neglect a vital tenant of creating truly effective solutions: it can allow us to miss real empathy.

Not only do we need to put real empathy back into our design process (because how empathetic is a “process”?), but we need to immerse ourselves in empathetic behavior.

The High-Tech (Dis)Connection

In her post, Connecting and Disconnecting, Whitney Hess writes about how distant people have become from one another. All of this technology that was supposed to give us more leisure time has only really given us more vanity time. She writes:

All these distractions, the lack of physical motion, and the lack of presence all combines to disconnect us not only from one another, but from ourselves.

How many times in the past three years have you posted a quick “Happy Birthday!” on Facebook  or Twitter when you used to send cards or even actually visit your loved one with gift in hand? Did you post it because you really thought about the kind of birthday that person was having? Or did you post it because you didn’t want to be the bad friend who forgot to do so much as take two seconds to type a tepid wish?

Practice Empathy

So how do you practice empathy? It’s really pretty simple. Put down your phone, your tablet, step away from your high-tech gadgets and go talk to people.

At work, take a dedicated 10 – 20 minute break each day and walk around. Talk to someone different. Someone you may work closely with, but don’t really know. Ask them about their family, their hobbies, their pets, their car. At least one of those will spark a conversation.

At home, turn off Netflix, power down the Playstation, put down your Kindle and make a family meal where you sit down together and talk. And for heaven’s sake, don’t bring your phone to the table. Whatever it is you think will happen if that phone isn’t in your hand can seriously wait.

Ask your spouse, your children, your parents (whatever your family mix is) how their day was. And don’t tell them how your day was unless they ask. Make it about them. Really listen to what they’re saying. Do your best to discern between issues they’re just venting about and issues that you can provide help with.

Putting Empathy to Work

Take everything you learn from those experiences and conversations and let it color how you work on a daily basis. The business says that orange icon is absolutely the most important piece of information on the screen? It needs to be front and center? Don’t automatically yea or nay their request.

Take a look at it from their side. Ask questions so you can put yourself in their shoes. Ask them what business problem the orange icon is meant to solve. By understanding the problem they’re trying to solve for, you can guide them toward an effective solution.

Help them see the problem from the vantage point of the end user/customer/member. Walk them through a quick scenario of how their target audience would approach the experience. And maybe the most effective solution is that orange icon after all, but you won’t really know unless you take the time to stop, talk and understand.

Original artwork by Igor Gregorio.

About Amy Marquez

Amy Marquez is a senior user experience designer for a Texas-based, Fortune 500, financial services company. She's been a UX professional since the late 1990s, working in both corporate and freelance settings. Amy has also been performing improvisational comedy for over 20 years and is delightfully surprised at how much that has helped her in her career. Follow Amy @amymarquez.

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