Empathy and Sympathy in UX (Over Dinner)

If you’re trying to become more user-centred within an organisation (as many are these days), you might have faced the familiar phrase of ‘we already do enough for our users’. Sometimes, even more worryingly, ‘we are user centred, we design everything with our users in mind’.

Reality check: You will never speak on behalf of your users! Only they can do this!

Sometimes, if UX is being considered but not properly invested in, you might get a few individuals who think that they are speaking from the position of the user. I suppose this is progress in terms of trying to consider users more, but this can never really happen by imagining what someone who has a colour vision deficiency might think of a web page, you have to (wait for it…) actually ask them!

Number one rule: Never assume anything.

It’s super important to have empathy for your users, not just sympathy. Watch how they would perform tasks – can they achieve their goals? With sympathising for a user, you’re often asking for affirmation or validation for designs. With empathy, you understand the obstacles because you’re being shown. You’re trusting the user to make the service better for them and what they’re trying to achieve.

So, let’s review this over dinner…

No regard for users

I have a friend coming round for dinner. My family and I worked on this recipe for an amazing steak pie, and I tried it out last week and they all loved it! I’m going to cook it again for my friend and see what they think, as I’m pretty sure they’re going to love it, too.

My friend arrives! I’m so excited to try this out.

‘Steak pie okay for you? You’re going to love it!’

‘Umm…err..Helen? I’m actually a vegetarian…’

Not considering who might use your product can lead to things that are completely unusable.

Wait…what? So all my cooking has been for nothing? The pie isn’t even something they would eat?! This is a joke. Well you know what, I’m going to eat it anyway and I’m sure people who eat meat will also love it. I guess my friend will just have to pick out the steak bits.

Sympathy for users

I have a friend coming round for dinner. I know they’re a vegetarian, because I asked them beforehand. Phew, at least I can avoid what happened before! Okay, so I’m going to have a look at awesome vegetarian recipes and make them something I’m sure they’ll love. Chickpea curry? Yes!

Knock at the door…my friend is here!

‘Take a seat! I’ve made chickpea curry for you! I thought I’d try out some veggie recipes and I loved this one and thought you would too! What do you think?’

‘Yeah, it’s nice! I like it, but on the whole I’m not a huge fan of anything this spicy…I was actually kinda in the mood for some veggie lasagne – you know like something pasta based?’

Is this person for real… Although, honestly, I suppose it’s a success. I showed them what I made and they said it was nice and they liked it! I could think like a vegetarian, be like a vegetarian, like the same things as a vegetarian, oh my goodness I know so much about being vegetarian! I’m gonna cook chickpea curry for all of my veggie friends in future, go me!

It’s important not to involve users only when it is to validate your designs. Pay close attention to what they are doing as well as what they are saying.

Empathy for users

I have a friend coming round for dinner. I know they’re a vegetarian, because I asked them beforehand. I sent them a text before coming round asking if there was anything they were in the mood to eat tonight.

Something Italian!

Okay… I can work with this. I’ll whip up a Mediterranean veg lasagne and see what they think.

Knock knock…

‘So I know you said you wanted something Italian, so I made you this lasagne!’

‘Oh, awesome!’

Thank goodness for that. All this cooking is exhausting.

‘Um Helen..?’

What now… ‘Yeah? How’s the lasagne?’

‘It’s good yeah! I just think it would be better if we had some garlic bread?’

You just can’t please some people can you.

‘Sure! I’ll stick some in the oven! (…) There you go!’



‘Think you could cut this bread up? It’s really hard to eat a full baguette… I’m kind of not enjoying it because I can’t get to the nice bits in the middle and also holding it all time means it’s getting my fingers all garlicky and I can’t pick up my fork properly to eat the rest of lasagne and…you get me right?’

‘I get you. I’ll slice the bread for you. But next time… you’re cooking dinner.’

Do your research before, focus on what users are doing and not what they are saying, and constantly iterate and improve your products until the usability itself and experience of using them is positive for your users.

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