Empathy-in-User-Centered-DesignAs product designers, managers, and engineers, our creations meet needs and solve problems for users. So, we need to understand how they think and approach problems, but if we’re designing innovative products with which we want them to fall in love, we need to understand how they feel when they attempt to solve the problem without us. Is it frustration? Is it determination? Is it inadequacy? Is it joy? Where do they find Delight?

The rationale and motivations our users have when solving a problem are numerous and contextual to the problem; that is, how our users deal with a problem depends on a volume of variables – their experience, their personal urgency, how they react when their loved ones are affected by the outcome, how well they can handle change, their creativity, their belief in themselves to handle it, and so on. Our personas’ perspective on why they need to get through a series of tasks has an impact on how they solve the problem or if they even can.

Walk a Mile in Their Shoes

To help us better understand how we might design products and services that have a greater likelihood of our users enjoying them, we need to build empathy; personally identify with their with their problems.

Explore the following 8 eight concepts to bring a demand for empathy into your organization today:

Empathic Design

Empathic Design is an approach to product design and development that includes qualitative data about about our end users’ motivations, behavioral, cognitive and attitudinal preferences to create a better user experience; that is, it includes observational research and brings the day-to-day realities into the design process.

Problem Solving Follows Problem Articulation

It’s often said that there are there are too many solutions out there looking for a problem. While it’s true that many times innovations will sit on a shelf somewhere before the market is ready for commercial application, it is critical that we’re meeting a real need.

Lean User Research

“Lean” is a popular term in the entrepreneurial, product design, and development spaces these days. For good reason too as it forces us to simplify – not just what we’re going to build, but also how we’re going to build it. I would even suggest that it forces us to ultimately think about why we’re going to attack an issue in the first

For the uninitiated, “Lean” does not mean “Less.” It means with minimal waste. If you’re thinking about profitability this is really important. If sustainability is a priority, then it’s indispensable.

Hacking Your Plan for Growth

When devising a Lean user research plan, the main objective is to create a series of experiments that validate viability and what to do with your experiments’ results. If your hypothesis holds true, what are the next steps? But perhaps more importantly, what if your hypothesis is wrong?

Protect Your Customer Development Activities

Often times in business, empathy is the last thing on anyone’s mind because it requires that we attempt to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes – which is against human nature. So, many times, the culture of an organization winds up keeping the focus on what we need to accomplish as opposed to what they need to accomplish. If this imposition permeates into the product design team our customer development activities will be thwarted.

Look for answers to questions such as are they used to high-stress environments? Can they deal with interruptions smoothly? Are they the type who thrive on personal success or do they feel better when someone else does it for them?

User Observation

We can not run a survey and ask questions (even if it’s in an personal interview) and assume our subjects are able to accurately tell us what they want or need. Believing they can is dangerous. It requires observation and listening between the lines which is why our approach includes an observation guide. We don’t want to fall prey to the trap of believing our customers have the ability to speak about what they really need. Instead, ask open-ended questions and listen for pain and other negative emotions that speak to obstacles. Pro tip: if they’re not speaking about challenges – directly ask for them and focus on the expression of their pain points.

Mapping the Users’ Experience

Articulating findings from research is ultimately what we’re after as it’s the tangible evidence of our research. A map of our users’ experience and emotional states through the usage of a product or service becomes a tool for our design thinking, idea generation, reorganization, etc. It leads to generative and exploratory work.

Reinforce a Culture of Empathy in Your Organization

Related to protecting customer development activities, is that bringing empathy into the organization will sometimes require a cultural shift. Most people don’t like change. So, keep showing the successes that including the customer voice brings, but be realistic too. It’s okay when things don’t turn out as planned and we should report on that as well.

We’d love to hear your thoughts. What’s your story? Have you or someone on your team tried to bring empathy to your product design teams? Successes? Failures?


With over 17 years of strategic, creative, and analytical User Experience-related practice, Chris Pallé has served in numerous institutions such as world-class ad agencies, e-commerce enterprises, and education groups ranging from small boutique shops to Fortune 100 companies – he gets the Bootstrappers and The Powers the Be.

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