Empathy is a key skill for designers and design teams. The ability to understand another person not only helps in creating better products but also in establishing better collaboration.
☕ Raising the team’s empathy
(Thanks for the topic idea, Jakob Christoffersen!)
Empathy has been and remains a buzzword in the wider design discourse. Often included in job descriptions for UX, design, and research-related roles. As a call to the broader industry to focus more on the users. A key skill that differentiates unethical technology bros from humane designers.
Design teams also like to describe themselves as the team advocating for users. Meaning acting with empathy is a sort of role-based competence that other functions don’t have. But why couldn’t we raise the empathy of others? It would be useful for everyone.
While it’s true that empathy is important, it’s often not that well understood what it exactly means. And especially how to get better at it. If a design team has the goal of making their wider organization more user-centered, they should think about how they use empathy, and how they can teach the wider org to get better at empathy.
To advocate for more empathy, design teams should understand how it contributes to their design process. This helps in articulating to the other teams why it’s important and how to work with it.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. In the design process, empathy is essential for understanding the needs and wants of users. Here is where understanding gets important - just sharing feelings leads to sympathy with little actionable insights.
Teams adopting the design thinking process, sometimes just point at its first step (Empathize!) as the key point where they understand the users - usually with some user research methods. But obviously using empathy at the beginning of the process is not enough, besides the right methods the right mindset is more important.
Since we are creating products for people to be used, things should start with the users. What are their needs? What are their goals? What are their pain points? There also needs to be respect for their time and attention - both during the design process and in the products we create. Finally, understanding is not a single act, feedback from users drives further iterations to make things better.
So start with the users, respect, and iterations - these need to be grounding points in empathizing. To make this happen team members need to be open-minded, respectful, and willing to listen - these are qualities that are difficult to coach but can be improved on a team level by consistent practices.
Unfortunately, some people refuse to be empathetic. This is a problem, if they want to create products, as products are intended for people to use. (Might be not a problem for certain shady or unethical product categories, like gambling.) Education helps to some extent, understanding their perspective also might allow for disagree and commit, as setting boundaries and rules can create a better tone for the collaboration.
Either way, being calm, respectful, and patient helps - empathy cannot be forced only encouraged.
Building on the mindset, empathy is useful in a few ways. It helps to understand the user’s …
- …goals: What are they trying to achieve? What are their motivations?
- …pain points: What are the things that are getting in their way?
- …context: How is their environment? What are their constraints?
- …emotions: How do they feel when they use your product? What emotions are they trying to achieve?
In the design process, empathy leads to a better understanding of the users. This better understanding energizes, motivates the team and also enables better design decisions. The most common methods include:
- User research: Gathering information about the users with interviews, surveys, observation, etc. The goal is to explore the problem space and to understand the users’ needs, wants, and pain points. Especially useful if there is direct exposure to users by everyone involved in the design process.
- Personas: Representations of users created by combining information from user research and other sources. Personas can be used to express and visualize users’ needs and wants on a deeper level.
- User journey mapping: Understanding the user’s experience with a product by mapping out the steps that a user takes when interacting with a product. Helps to identify potential problems and areas for improvement.
- Empathy mapping: Describing the user’s emotions and motivations by creating a map of the user’s thoughts, feelings, and actions in their interaction with the product.
Consistently practicing empathy in the design process will lead to a better understanding of users, and thus better products created for them, also helps people participating in the development process to improve their empathy skills.
Empathy however is not only useful in the design process but also in product teams and the wider organization to improve collaboration and enable more diverse and inclusive practices. Empathy makes collaboration a super skill, rather than just one more box to check.
Raising empathy is also important to build great teams and partnerships across functions, so design leaders should prioritize both hiring for empathy and continuously working on improving the empathy skills of team members.
This starts with modeling empathy yourself. As a design leader, you set the tone for the team. If you want your team to be empathetic, you need to be empathetic yourself. This means being able to understand and share the feelings of others, even if you don’t agree with them. This has the added advantage of contributing to creating a safe environment.
A culture of feedback, besides being important for learning and growth also helps people become more empathetic to others by helping make them more aware of their own biases.
Creating opportunities for team members to learn about and practice empathy is another important step. For example, assigning roles in workshop activities or participating in role-playing exercises helps. Encouraging team members to share their experiences is another way to practice, sharing experiences and listening to the experiences of others. With one of my teams, we did a so-called “Empathy hour” sharing how we are doing every Friday morning. This both helped to forge better team bonds and practice empathy.
Raising empathy is not a one-off activity. The above practices should be baked into the daily rituals of the design team. Expanded over time to other functions too, one reason why including other functions in design activities is important. This is how everyone will get more empathetic towards both each other and the users.
🥤 To recap
- Empathy is important for understanding users and creating better products. When designers understand the user’s needs and goals, they can create products that are more user-friendly and effective.
- Empathy is more than just sympathy, it’s about understanding the user’s needs and goals.
- There are many ways to practice empathy, including user research, personas, and empathy mapping.
- Empathy is also important for collaboration and building great teams. When team members are empathetic, they are more likely to be understanding and respectful of each other’s ideas. This can lead to better collaboration and more effective teamwork.
- Design leaders should prioritize raising the design teams and the wider org’s empathy.
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🍪 Things to snack on
Indy Young’s Practical Empathy book (also, as conference talk) is the single best resource to learn about empathy, how to get better at it, and how to apply it. As it’s an essential skill not only for designers, it’s a recommended read for other functions too.
Empathy is often just another vague word, Sarah Gibbons clarifies the depth that is useful for design in Sympathy vs. Empathy in UX. There are a bunch of useful tips empathy can be practiced in design, for example by using qualitative methods, using videos when presenting research findings, or having a diverse team.
A few nice examples to teach and practice empathy by Jennifer Winter in Three Exercises to Teach Your Team Empathy. These exercises focus on learning about other people, understanding their situation, and practicing active listening. Similar practices can be easily added to team meetings.
Jared Spool writes about exposure hours in Fast Path to a Great UX, which is not only a great tool to increase user-centeredness but also helps teams develop empathy. What I like that it also gives a simple measurement - everyone should spend two hours with users every 6 weeks, which is seems achievable for most orgs.
I liked this short one from Dan Saffer: In Design, Empathy is Not Enough, as it highlights how empathy fits into the broader design process. Empathy is the preceding step for understanding - which helps in finding the solutions for the problems uncovered.
While design teams often advocate for empathy, it’s interesting to see how other functions take empathy seriously, like in Zafeer Rais’s The most important product manager skill: empathy. Rais describes how empathy can be showcased towards users, customers, engineer & design teams, stakeholders, the company overall, and yourself.
Empathy Prompts is a neat little utility that helps to experience certain disabilities.