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Themes in User Experience, Part 2: Empathy

A long time ago, I wrote that “non-empathic geeks become engineers, and empathic geeks become information designers.” Empathy is a critical quality for people working in the user experience field. We’ve developed numerous tools, from contextual inquiry to usability testing, to help us get inside the heads of the people who will be using our systems.

Through our empathy, we inevitably become advocates for our users. When people in the organization try to get end-users to do things they would have no reasonable interest in doing, we pipe up, saying, “You can’t expect people to do that! They have no motivation for it, there’s no value in it for them!” When people in the organization dismiss those who can’t use a product as “stupid users”, we shout, “They’re not stupid! They’re just being people! They’re being themselves. You haven’t bothered to understand the context in which they’re using it, their capabilities, their desires. Don’t call them ‘stupid’!”

And then we often turn around, and complain about those “stupid engineers” or “stupid marketers” or “stupid management.” They don’t understand anything. They’re just making our jobs harder.

It’s a little ironic, no?

In the last couple of years, pretty much since starting Adaptive Path, I’ve realized that we user experience types need to expand our empathy beyond our end-users, and to include our colleagues (or clients) as well. It’s surprising how willing we are to deal with the idiosyncracies of our user population, and yet so unwilling to really understand the perspectives of those we work with–Why they make certain decisions, what pressures and motivations they have, because of whatever means by which they are measured.

If we dismiss our colleagues and clients, they will dismiss our efforts. All designers have had the experience of their designs not seeing the light of day. And, in my experience, that’s largely due to the designers focusing solely on their processes and their users, and not aware of the internal realities in which this design must take root.

The empathy we show our users helps make our designs better… But if we want to make sure our designs get implemented and get out in the world, then we need empathy for our colleagues.

  1. We need to understand the point of view of each of the groups involved, and we need to incorporate that into our designs, but we’re an advocate for the user largely because they’re not there to defend their own needs.

    Each of the other groups — engineers, marketers, management — do pretty well advocating for themselves. Their wishes are going to be addressed no matter what we do.

    The user still has to come first for any of the group’s goals to be met, and that can’t happen if we’re trying to cater to everyone.

  2. Tess Lispi gave a presentation on this topic at IBM’s Make IT Easy conference in 2001. She applied UCD methods to her own team, e.g. developing personas of her team members.

  3. But you know sometimes, “stupid …” happens everywhere. Even the database/programmers have fun t-shirts to express this

    My mantra, it’s all about educating each member at the table. Nobody is stupid, they just don’t have things on their radar screen.

  4. I think it’s a matter of explaining user experience to clients and colleagues in terms that they understand within their field of operation. I venture to argue that most of them don’t purposely pull in the opposite direction of the focus on the end user, they might just be approaching the the problem from a different angle.

    The necessity of explaining and arguing for user experience within the professional rational of our opposites (be that clients or colleagues) became very apperent to me after dealing with markets that were way behind in terms of acceptance and knowledge of user centered design.

  5. Businesses are often (almost always) balancing constraints, resources, etc. and therefore put people in place to represent many different functional areas. Businesses are in business to make money not to make users happy. As a result, there will be inherent conflicts as each group tries to limit its own cuts and maximize its success in the process. Designer empathy (idealism) is a characteristic that businesses take advantage of by placing user advocates in the mix.

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  • JD on MX June 10, 2003

    Merholz on empathy

    Merholz on empathy: Peter writes about the dilemma of empathizing with two groups who may not directly see each other: “Through our empathy, we inevitably become advocates for our users. When people in the organization try to get end-users to…