• Sean Keenan

The Strength of Empathy


Empathy is the first step in the design process and potentially the most important. Without understanding your users wants and needs, your product will likely fail. With that in mind though, it’s not as simple as just putting yourself in the users shoes, but instead following a process to successfully document how your user thinks and feels.


Gaining a user’s empathy


The main thing about empathy though is that it’s not an easy process. Compared to traditional marketing, empathy is driven more by what motivates the user and how they think and feel rather than traditional fact hunting. It’s inherently subjective. The users themselves also don’t always say exactly what they’re feeling or thinking, which forces you to prod and assume, leading to uncomfortable interactions and faulty data.


With how difficult empathy is, designers have thought of different ways throughout the years to better empathize with their users. In a fun experiment by Sara Novak of Prototypr.io, she downloaded a chrome extension that made her browser have the look of a colorblind user. She did this to better understand her co-worker, who is actually colorblind. These were her initial thoughts when beginning the process, which help show why she needed to better emphasize with her co-worker


Going into this experiment, all I knew was that red and green look similar to Peter, and previously I hadn’t thought much more about it. But what does that really mean? "Does green look like red?” “Are all trees red to him?” “If that’s the case, how can he tell when the trees change color in the fall?” “Or does red look like green?” “Do all warning labels look like eco-friendly labels?”

I’ll just say as a colorblind person myself, thoughts like these are very frequent when people ask about it, but also simply incorrect. As Novak continued her experiment, she also quickly found her assumption was quite off. It wasn’t that he just mixed up specific colors, it’s that he can’t literally can’t distinguish them. This in turns simply limits his overall color field, not alters it, hence being color “blind”. After her initial shock, she then had this interesting interaction with Peter


I was incredibly surprised at just how differently everything looks to Peter. After only a couple hours I went to Peter and exclaimed “Your world is so dull! Your palette is really limited.” To which he replied, “I don’t know any different. I don’t know what I’m missing.”

Novak didn’t mean any harm, she was simply surprised that this condition affects as much as it does, especially since she probably didn’t realize how much it affected Peter. As Peter shows too though, the issue is that the user isn’t always going to be able to properly articulate their problem. Peter knows he’s colorblind, but he’s not sure the exact solution for that is. He struggles enough already trying to explain it to work colleagues, so going even more in-depth with a designer would probably be ineffective. What Peter does know though are his genuine thoughts and feelings.


Diverge into empathy maps


Having four separate categories (says, thinks, feels, does), empathy maps are used during the research phase of a design to better capture a user's thoughts and feelings, as well as make it easier to communicate those thoughts and feelings for others. The biggest strength these maps provide is presenting a more open look into your user.


The questions asked on the empathy map are very simple. They’re not overly pointed questions such as forcing the user to make a rash decision. Instead, they’re more relaxed and general, letting the user simply express themselves and not feel judged. By stimulating this type of environment, you’re more likely to get genuine answers and issues out of your users.

An example of an empathy map I created for a previous project


Above is an empathy map I created for my redesign of the app Mindshift, with the focus being on the user’s personal experience with anxiety less than the app. What this process showed me was the importance of all four areas of the map. I went in thinking certain sections would give me better info than others, but in reality they all have good info. Whether it be the nervous twitching or genuine frustration you could hear being shared, you gained better info, as well as a greater sense of empathy in general as opposed to questions such as “So what exactly makes you anxious?”

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© 2020 by Sean Keenan.