Empathy requires experience

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Paul Boag Posted by: Paul Boag On Tuesday, 1st October, 2013

Empathy requires experience

The ability to empathise is recognised as a crucial soft skill that web designers, writers and managers require. However, empathy needs more than an intellectual understanding.

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This post was originally published by me over at econsultancy.com

If you spend anytime at all reading the plethora of articles on designing or running websites, it won’t take you long to encounter the word empathy.

The user centric movement obsesses (rightfully so) about understanding users. We create personas, customer journeys and empathy maps. We run focus groups, user test sessions and emotional response tests.

And yet with all of our techniques and tools, I am not convinced we really ever actually empathise.

What it means to empathise

Empathy can be defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” I believe we have become better at understanding the feelings of our users, but rarely do we actually share those feelings. That is because we often lack experience.

To truly empathise with somebody you have to have either shared a real connection with them or the same experience.

For example, it is much easier to design a website for a friend who happens to fit the sites demographic, than it is to design for an abstract persona.

Mailchimp Personas

There is no doubt that personas have their place, but they do not really help you empathise with users.

It’s also much easier to build something that scratches your own itch, because you experience the pains and pleasures of using the app yourself.

When designing for a friend or for an experience you have had, the exercise moves from an intellectual one to an emotional one.

Like a method actor, we need to experience more.

Back to the real world

This is all fine and dandy in a world of endless budgets and open timescales. In such a world you can adopt ethnographic research techniques, where you spend time with your target audience and immerse yourself in their experiences.

But back in the real world this can rarely happen. Projects don’t have the time or budget for this kind of luxury. So where does that leave us?

It leaves us looking at ourselves and our own experiences. The wider our experiences and relationships, the greater the chance that we will end up designing for a friend or scratching our own itch. If we are more rounded, experienced individuals then more of our own experiences can be applied to the projects we work on.

Take for example a web professional working in-house within an organisation. I am often shocked how little contact these people have with end users or even how little interest they have in the area of expertise of the company. I have worked with web professionals in a pet charity that don’t like animals, and those who work on a cycling ecommerce site who don’t ride a bike. I have even encountered people who actively avoid their target audience because they are “not my kind of person.”

You are never going to empathise with a user you destain, or share an experience if you avoid their interests. You have to make the effort.

But, what about those of us who do not work with a single audience on a single site? What about those of us who work with multiple clients?

How to empathise in a multiple client world

Admittedly it is not possible to take an interest in every subject area or befriend every user group. However, we can make an effort to broaden our horizons.

This is an area where many in the web community fall horribly short. It’s a particular problem in web hotspots like Brighton, London or San Francisco.

One of the great things about the web profession is its sense of community. There are always meet ups, conferences, events and online discussions. The problem is that this often leads to web professionals existing in a web bubble. Many web professionals I know, only know other web people. With such a narrow band of relationships, it will make empathy hard.

Expand your social circle

Every monday I go down the pub with two friends. One is a mechanic and the other a pastor of a church. Neither of them have a clue about the web and yet I learn more about good web design from them than I do from many of my peers.

I also run a youth group that exposes me to another demographic. These kids live and breathe the web and are horrified when I describe my own pre-web childhood.

My involvement with my local church exposes me to a huge cross section of the populous from unemployed dropouts to retired professionals.

All of this means when I work on a project the chances are I can think of somebody I know to design for, rather than a theoretical persona. This makes an enormous difference when it comes to empathising.

But don’t stop at expanding your relationships. Also look to expand your experiences.

Expand your experiences

George Orwell (the author of 1984 and Animal Farm) had a privileged background. He attended Eton before going on to become a colonial police officer in Burma. He knew little of working life in England and felt compelled to change that.

He ended up living on the streets of London in an attempt to widen his horizons. Not only did this experience made him more compassionate, it also had a profound impact on his writing.

He realised his background limited his experience and so went out of his way to change that. We as web professionals would benefit from doing the same thing.

I am not suggesting we live on the streets, but perhaps we should try surviving on dialup for a while or using with a screen reader for a week.

But more than that, we should look to expand our interests beyond the web and technology. By going travelling, moving away from a tech hub or volunteering for a charity, we will be exposed to people and experiences that would otherwise have escaped us. We will see the web differently and have a more rounded view of our users. It will enable us to empathise with real people’s experience of technology, not simply our peers in the technology bubble.

“Persona” images courtesy of The Mailchimp Blog

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