When I was 14 and my dad passed away, I remember a lot of people saying things to me like, “I’m so sorry, but at least he’s not in pain anymore,” or “Sorry to hear about your dad, but always remember he loved you so much.” I knew people meant well, but these sentiments just fell flat to me.
One day, though, a family friend asked me how I was doing. I gave my obligatory, teenage grumble of, “Okay,” and didn’t expect much to follow. Instead, she asked, “Do you ever think you hear him coming home from work?” I was shocked because I had. She said that her dad died when she was around my age and she remembered the same thing happening to her.
Of all the attention I received during that time, I’ll never forget this small interaction because it made me feel understood and comforted in a way the “I’m sorrys” hadn’t. It fulfilled a need for connection that I didn’t even realize I needed. That’s the power of empathy.
Empathy vs. Sympathy
As the video above explains, we often confuse empathy with sympathy. Sympathy is the polite thing to do. When we are sympathetic we acknowledge someone else’s situation, but only on the surface. We try to comfort them, but often use glass half full statements that start with “at least” or “but”. However, these do more to comfort ourselves than others.
Empathy, on the other hand, is about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and trying to understand their feelings, even if you haven’t had the same experiences as them. For many, it takes an active effort to be empathetic. But practicing empathy increases your curiosity and in turn, helps you build connections with other people which goes a lot farther in helping someone then just feeling sorry for them does.
But empathy isn’t reserved for individual situations. It may seem like a warm and fuzzy personal topic, but it also has strategic applications that can impact large groups of people. For example, the video above illustrates how an organization is using empathy in the form of a phone line to try and build peace between Israelis and Palestinians affected by violent conflict.
Businesses are also increasingly finding empathy to be a valuable and necessary tool in creating their product and service experiences. This is called design empathy.
Empathy in Business
Design firm IDEO defines design empathy as “an approach that draws upon people’s real-world experiences to address modern challenges.” These modern challenges are often more complex to solve because advances in technology and communication have made our world more closely connected than ever before.
This smaller, more connected world means businesses are now more often called upon to design products or services that meet the needs of users with less familiar needs or ones with multiple kinds of needs, whether they are related to physical or mental abilities, culture, language, religion, education, economics, or a host of other factors.
This combined with the rise in personalization means expectations are higher than ever for businesses and organizations to deliver product or service experiences that resonate with every user, no matter their needs.
This is the reason Pixar used design empathy to make sure Inside Out, their 2015 film about human emotions, would be relatable for audiences everywhere it was screened. They learned a scene where the main character as a toddler refuses to eat broccoli didn’t make sense in Japan because kids there don’t think of broccoli as a gross food the way American kids do. In reaction, they asked Japanese audiences what did make sense and reanimated the scene for its Japanese release with the most common response: green bell peppers.
Overall, they changed the animation on 28 graphics across 45 shots in the movie to accommodate the needs of various audiences. Not only did being empathetic in the design of Inside Out align with the emotional message of the film, but it was also a smart business decision for a company planning a global product launch.
How we gain User Empathy
Practicing design empathy means putting aside your biases and assumptions and listening to your users. This is the focus of the first step of the human-centered design thinking process. During this step, appropriately called empathize, a user experience (UX) designer will do research in order to understand users. This research may take the form of user interviews, surveys, and observations. It can even include designers taking part in activities or processes that mimic the real-world experiences of users.
For example, if you are a UX designer trying to improve the long-distance flying experience for an airline, you might actually take a long-distance flight on the carrier to understand firsthand how the space, food, entertainment, and service make travelers feel. You never know what might help you better understand your users.
IDEO has had a UX designer sleep on rubber sheets in order to empathize with nursing home residents and another had his chest waxed to understand the anticipatory anxiety of pain from a stranger that patients have before medical procedures.
These empathetic research activities generate copious amounts of information, notes, and feedback. Sometimes you may be able to see patterns developing during research that give you a taste for understanding your users, but to focus exclusively on these would be a mistake.
The mantra of the design thinking process is to leave no stone unturned. It is the application of scientific method to amorphous data — emotions, opinions, human behaviors. You want to understand as much about your users as possible in order to offer them the best possible solution to their problem. So, you need a structure to organize your research findings in a way that helps you look at them and empathize with them holistically. Enter empathy maps.
Empathy Maps Explained
Empathy maps are visualizations of everything you know about a user or a type of user. They consist of a grid with multiple quadrants into which you sort user information. At the center of your empathy map should always be your user, either their name or image, in a circle. This presence of the user will remind you that they and their needs are your focus during this activity.
Depending on the approach you take and your project’s needs, empathy maps most often have 4 or 6 quadrants labeled as:
- Say and Do: Everything you heard your user say during your research, including direct quotes you noted, and everything you observed them doing
- Think and Feel: What matters to your user? What do they spend their mental energy on? What do they NOT talk about? Values, emotions, opinions
- See: Everything your user visually is exposed to and affected by (people, environment, etc.)
- Hear: Everything your user is auditorily exposed to and affected by (people, environment, etc.)
- Pains: Frustrations, fears, and obstacles your user has
- Gains: Dreams, hopes, wishes, and desires your user has
Categorizing information on the map should be fairly straightforward. Some sections—Thinks and Feels—may require some inferences based on your observations and knowledge of your user. Making assumptions about users doesn’t yield good results, but some leaps of faith are necessary and acceptable since no one is a mind reader.
You may also find a certain piece of information that feels like it fits in multiple quadrants. Just pick the one you think is best. Likewise, you may realize information in one quadrant contradicts information in another. Don’t worry. People are weird. Seeing contradictions on an empathy map can prompt helpful exploration. Often the most interesting insights about a user come from trying to understand their contradictions.
So, if you run into these or other situations when filling out your empathy map, just remember that Nielsen Norman Group says precision is not the aim of this exercise’s structure. You are simply using the quadrants to make sure nothing is left out of your user understanding. So, as long as all your user information is on the map, you’re doing it right.
If you are doing this exercise with a team, a whiteboard and post-it notes can be helpful. Draw your empathy map on the whiteboard or on a large piece of paper taped to the board. Then have everyone on the team write information on post-it notes, one piece of information per paper, and stick them to the quadrant of the board they think that information fits in. It’s okay if the same information ends up on the board multiple times.
If you cannot leave the map on the whiteboard, you can collect the post-it notes in envelopes labeled with their quadrants and record everything in a map medium that works for your team’s needs.
Why Use Empathy maps
In addition to offering important organization for the chaos of user research, empathy maps can help you see holes in your research. If you find after filling out an empathy map that one quadrant is not as full as others or is empty, this is a sign you need to collect more user data or else there will be holes in your user understanding.
Once developed, empathy maps offer an organized, holistic view of your user that can help you identify their needs, sometimes needs they may not even be aware of themselves. These needs then inform what problems your design must offer solutions for.
Empathy maps are meant to be a shareable guide throughout the design process. They can help get all members of a project on the same page about user insights and be a reference point whenever you fear bias may be creeping into your work.
They are also useful in explaining who users are to outside stakeholders. Certain members of a business’ leadership may not be involved in the day-to-day design process, but you may need to have them understand your process and what data you are basing your ideas on in order to get approvals and funding. The visual nature of empathy maps can make them easier to digest than written reports.
Empathy maps are a tool that makes connections possible. It can help you make connections within your user research data, with team members on the focus of a project, with stakeholders to build understanding, or, most importantly, with users to design experiences that meet their needs.
This is appropriate considering that empathy, at its core, is all about forging connections. In your personal life, it can help you connect with other people and provide comfort during difficult times. In your professional life, empathy can help you connect with users and drive design innovation
So, whether you want to change the whole world or just change one individual’s world, start practicing empathy with purpose. Even the smallest connection can make a bigger difference than you realize.
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Dam, R. F. & Teo, Y. S. (2019, February). Design thinking: getting started with empathy. Interaction Design Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/design-thinking-getting-started-with-empathy
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