empathy: /ˈɛmpəθi/, noun, derived from Ancient Greek ἐμπάθεια (empátheia, literally “passion”).
- Identification with or understanding of the thoughts, feelings, or emotional state of another person.
- Capacity to understand another person’s point of view or the result of such understanding.
- (parapsychology, science fiction) A paranormal ability to psychically read another person’s emotions.
In our case, as we work with users of our products, we focus on definitions 1 and 2. Let’s just assume we all follow a user-centred product development approach and want to create our product with the best possible experience for our users. For this endeavour, it is substantial to develop a high empathy for our users. We need to understand their environments, their routines, and where they are facing challenges.
Some people naturally find it easier to empathize with other people than others. Luckily there’s hope! First of all, you should make talking to your users a habit, not a one-time exercise. It is a no-go to think of yourself as the user and assume problems without proving their existence. If you keep close contact with your (potential) users, you will develop a natural feel for them. You will start to open up for their needs and desires and you will begin to discover smaller details that can have a very high impact on your product’s experience. The tricky truth is, that users often cannot put their challenges into words themselves. It is the job of user researchers to detect this information and translate them into the product design and development stream.
When going through a UX design process, maybe as part of an ideation project or during a workshop, you can make use of some existing methods. These methods already proved to increase emotional and cognitive empathy and offer something for every time and money budget! Below are three hand-picked exercises that I found useful in past projects.
Time: 30–180 min
A very effective yet easy to perform exercise in which you sneak into the daily lives of your users. Depending on where your product is going to be used you want to watch this exact space and take notes of what is happening. Pay attention to the struggles your users have to go through, and again: most of the time they won’t notice them anymore. They got used to shifting around challenges and creating their own paths through their daily work routines.
A great help for post-observation analysis is the use of video or audio recordings from your sessions. Make sure to pull as much information out of it as possible and then try to boil it down in a structured way so that you are able to talk about your insights with people that are not involved in your topic.
Time: 90–a lot of min
This probably is the most effortful method to use, but it can really help to illustrate the perspective of your users. In a user simulation, you would rebuild the daily environment of your users in your own space, similar to a theatre set. Create a room in which your user would feel comfortable and bring in as many details as possible. You really want to think of small things as they are likely to make a difference during your use case. Take consultation of your users when building that space.
The tricky part now is that you cannot just enter this scene and immediately expect a big mind change. You or your team needs to spend a considerable amount of time inside the simulation and perform tasks that are also being performed by your users in their natural environments. You can also use this space for your daily brainstorming sessions while more or less consciously absorbing the new vibes. The more you get used to this, the greater your empathy will be — but still, you will keep your fresh eyes on the topic. At some point, you will start to recognize issues your users are facing and how they can potentially be solved.
Time: 45–60 min
This exercise can be performed after a thorough collection of user research material. You will need to gather all the information about your user or target group. What you do next, is filling out a four-parted canvas that forces you to think about certain expressions and impressions the user or target group would experience in regards to a question, problem statement or general business-related topic. The four main questions to answer are: What does the user think and feel? What does the user see? What does the user say and do? What does the user hear?
While this technically is the easiest of the three methods, putting in valuable insights from your research can be a huge challenge. I highly recommend partnering up with an experienced professional counterpart for this case.
You can find several canvases online, they’re all very similar to each other.
You got to know three ways on how to increase your user empathy. Be aware that this is not a simple skill that can be quickly learned, but has a lot to do with the emotions you are willing to invest — not only into your research. But if you read this article, you probably already know that you or your business will be rewarded for the energy put into this mindset-shift.
Thanks for reading!