Empathy makes better product experiences (and makes us better humans)

You don’t need to have the word ‘UX’ in your job title to think about user experience actively. Every single interaction in your day accounts for a user, or better yet, a human experience. For example, an architect considers how a person uses space when planning a house, a retail assistant greets a customer at the door to make them welcome, or you add a new plant to your room to feel more positive at home.

UX has become a buzzword in recent years with the emergence of technology. As a result, more businesses hire dedicated individuals to advocate for users and take a design thinking approach. Empathy is one of the most critical aspects of design thinking — how can we expect to make delightful experiences for our users if we don’t know who they are, what they think and feel or how they behave?

What is empathy?

Nielsen Norman Group defines empathy as:

“The ability to fully understand, mirror, then share another person’s expressions, needs, and motivations.”

In essence, empathy is about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and seeing the world through their eyes. It’s what we do in our working lives to create meaningful experiences for clients, customers and users, no matter your role or your industry.

Everything we do and every action we make will end up affecting another human being. So empathy is not just a tactic for businesses to use to be successful. We should all be utilising it in our daily lives to improve everyone’s personal human experience.

Why are we so good at empathising to create better user experiences but not at empathising with our fellow humans?

This pandemic has brought out the worst in some people when it should have been vital to be compassionate. While it’s apparent to empathise with people to create great user experiences at work, it seems that this ability has been switched off when caring about fellow humans in our personal lives.

Online platforms have paved the way for people to say whatever they want without consideration for others. I have seen figures on social media come forward about horrific and heartbreaking bullying they have suffered during the pandemic. As a New Zealander living overseas, I’ve read the ignorant and hurtful comments on Facebook of people calling for New Zealand to close its borders to its citizens because we are “contaminated” and should just “stay where we are”. And these examples are just the tip of the iceberg.

Screenshot of comment from Facebook.
One of the lovely comments directed at New Zealander’s living overseas during the pandemic. Zero consideration of the circumstances of Kiwis who have no choice but to return home.

If we remind ourselves of the definition of empathy as the ability to fully understand, mirror, then share another person’s expressions, needs, and motivations, it is clear that this is not always happening. So I ask myself, why? Why is it so difficult for people to think of others and their situations before making negative comments? Is it because the online world has given people the power of anonymity, and they feel they can say anything they want and get away with it? Would they make the same comments and behave the same towards a person if they were standing right in front of them? Are they empathising with a person but in the end, they just don’t care? I honestly can’t answer the question.

We all have the power to improve human experiences all around us.

When I wake up and read comments people make about locking New Zealander’s out of their own country, it doesn’t make me feel good, and I don’t know when I’ll be able to return to New Zealand and see family and friends again. What people who are making those comments don’t realise is that those comments negatively impact my day. My human experience for the day is different from what it would have been if those comments didn’t exist.

My example is trivial compared to what other people have to go through or deal with, and I can’t imagine the torment fellow humans have to endure because some people can’t empathise.

Suppose we could all just stop for a moment and empathise before we speak or take action. In that case, we can build more positive human experiences for everyone, just like how we build excellent user experiences for products and services.

How can we apply design thinking to real life?

It is interesting that with design thinking, we actively learn about empathy. Still, I don’t remember a time in my life where anyone taught me personally about empathy in the same way. Fun fact: everything we learn from a user experience perspective can be utilised in real-life scenarios too.

Take empathy mapping. It’s such an obvious task to understand users when working on a project, but it’s also an excellent way to understand people in your personal life. For example, maybe you see something you disagree with online? Instead of replying straight away, why not create an empathy map and look at things from their perspective? You don’t have to agree with their approach, but if you understand where they are coming from, you might be able to have a sensible discussion and not cause hurt at either end.

An example empathy map.
Example of an empathy map by Nielsen Norman Group — we can replace ‘User’ with ‘Person’

Food for thought.

It wasn’t until recently that I had thought to compare using empathy in a work environment to improve a product or service and empathy in our daily lives. It seems bizarre that we often don’t bring the same design thinking into situations outside of work. And that should change.

I challenge myself, and I challenge you to start actively empathising more in your lives and bring positive change — even if it just affects one person, then we’ve already made a difference. Like the title says, empathy makes better product experiences and will make us better humans.