In order to create great experiences, you need to put yourself in your user’s shoes. You can’t do that if you don’t empathize with them. Knowing your audience is a basic first step. It’s usually one of the first questions we ask when we start designing. Empathy on the other hand, is the heart and soul of user-centered designed. It’s the path to understanding the users you are designing for. Empathy and sympathy are not the same thing. Empathy is the ability to understand what someone else is experiencing or feeling because you have felt it or experienced it at one point yourself. Sympathy on the other hand is simply recognizing feelings of distress and sadness in other people and offering comfort or kind words to them. So how can you empathize with your users? Consider utilizing method design.
Create empathy through method design
Think of method acting. If you’re familiar with the concept, actors like Christian Bale, Marlon Brando, or Daniel Day Lewis might have popped in your head. Method actors use effective sense memory and in-depth character research to effectively play the characters they portray on screen. By putting themselves through the intense process, they develop a deep sense of empathy for the characters that they play. As a result, they yield outstanding performances. Designers can do the same thing—if you design methodically, you can learn to empathize with your users.
Engage in thorough research
Method actors do a ton of research—they read books, watch movies, surround themselves with similar people, and will even put themselves in the a similar position. Sometimes it’s dangerous. Many actors today will starve themselves to know what it feels like to be hungry. Some will spend weeks at a hospital to know what it feels like to be a doctor. Actors do this just so they can understand. As user experience professionals, we should be engaging in similar research (with the exception of unsafe scenarios). The first step is observation. Look at your user’s face, their posture, and their eyes. These simple observations can tell you more about your user than words can.
In order to effectively empathize, you need to play the role of the person you want to empathize with. As designers, that means we need to play the role of the consumer. Are your users on a mobile device? Where are they when they’re accessing your website? What is your main concern when you’re trying to complete a task on a mobile device? Can you remember a time you couldn’t make a transaction on a mobile device? How did it make you feel? You can even take it a step further—seek a website or an app similar to the one you’re creating. Go to the mall and try to use the interface. Notice what works and what impedes the process in the tasks that you’re attempting to complete.
Dig past the demographics. Learn your user’s backstory. Find opportunities to empathize for the people you design for. If you do, you’ll understand your users more than you thought you could. Without direct observation, research, and understanding, it’s impossible to empathize with your users.