Why empathy with your users is not enough
2 minutes read
“Put yourself in their shoes” is a phrase that I’m sure you’ve heard countless times, perhaps even used yourself countless times. Empathy, the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in their situation is not only important for connecting with other human beings, it’s important for designing for other human beings as well. The problem is that empathy is an illusion. We think we can put ourselves in the shoes of others, but really we can’t.
The empathy illusion
Designers tend to be very big on empathy. There is a reason that ‘Empathise’ is the first step in many a design thinking process. After all, if you can’t empathise with your users, how can you design for them? Designers will run activities like empathy mapping workshops, persona workshops and role-playing workshops to help teams and stakeholders to empathise with their users. What is the user seeing, hearing, saying, doing, feeling? What are their goals, their frustrations, their dreams?
I’m not saying that activities like these are not a good idea, they are, but just because a team has spent 30 minutes creating an empathy map, doesn’t mean that they understand that user. Imagining what it’s like for someone is not the same as understanding what it’s like for someone.
Activities such as empathy mapping can build a false impression of understanding. The way to understand your users is not to empathise with them, it’s to experience the world as they do. Experience beats empathy every time.
Experience over empathy
The most fascinating day I’ve ever spent as a designer was in a non-descript office building just outside Coventry in the UK. I was helping to design an application to be used by travel agents for booking and amending holidays. The office building housed a call centre, and like a school child on a work experience placement I was to spend the day experiencing what it’s like to be a call centre operator.
Sitting at a desk with an operator, listening to their calls, watching them as they worked helped me build an understanding that I’d have never got from building empathy maps, or creating personas. For a day I got to live and breathe their world. I got to experience what it was like to have customers rant down the phone, and to have to meet demanding call volume targets. I got to experience first-hand the frustrations of the current booking system and some of the work arounds that operators had developed to get around these.
It was during my HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) MSc that I first came across the term Ethnography, the study of people and cultures from the subject’s perspective. Design has a magpie-like tendency to take ideas and activities from other disciplines and ethnography is one of the better steals. My day at the call centre, and many other days spent onsite with users has shown me that every designer should also be an ethnographer.
Ethnography can conjure up images of anthropologists like Bronisław Malinowski spending months living with little know tribes, but don’t worry, you don’t have to spend months living with your users to get a better understanding of them. 1 or 2 days is usually enough. Rather than the usual empathy building activities I’d recommend instead trying out experience building activities. For example:
- Service safaris – Where you experience first-hand a product or service.
- User observation – Where you visit and observe users in their environment, such as their home or workplace.
- A day in the life – Where you follow and observe a user through a typical day.
You and your team will not only build empathy, but also a much better understanding of your users.
In To Kill a Mocking Bird, Atticus Finch delivers this famous piece of advice to his daughter, advice that we would all do well to take on board.
I certainly wouldn’t advocate climbing into someone’s skin and walking around in it (for obvious reasons) but do try walking in their shoes for a day or so. Experience their world, and you’ll not only build empathy but a much better understanding of them.
- Building empathy with users is important, but activities like empathy mapping and personas can give a false impression that you understand them.
- The best way to understand your users is by directly experiencing their world.
- Activities to help experience your user’s world include service safaris, user observation and a day in the life exercises.