How to Design Better User Experiences with Empathy

When I started out with designing user experiences a decade back, there was only one user that I used to keep in mind.


Yes, I was one of those designers who was attuned to the latest design fads. My solutions looked like a potpourri of good-looking designs, which didn’t work together as a solution. Nope, not even one bit.

The entire solution looked like that it had been designed by multiple designers not having a clue about why were they designed together.

I would hardly get around to asking why would users want to use the app? What was their mental model? I always immediately jumped into the so-called “deep solution mode” to possibly showcase my Design prowess instead of understanding the problem which the user was trying to solve.

I guess I don’t have to explain why I was a bad designer.

I realized my mistake when I started talking to the users and doing different forms of feedback testing like hallway usability test, formal usability test and running analytics on my solution.

It just evoked one common response from the users.


Or, the correct way of expressing their reactions – “WTF”!

It didn’t take me long to realize that I was far off the mark. I had to start closer, closer to home.

I had to start with my user. The design was for the user, not vice versa.

I needed to empathize.

Empathize well.

I’m not sure how and what I did to change my design thinking but I just felt that whatever design I would put together from now on would solve the problems of users. I promised that I wouldn’t care if it follows the design fads or sexy interactions.

I promised that I would follow the mantra of –

Get married to the user’s problem, not your solutions.

In my journey, I learned the following from various sources and my experiences –

Empathy ≄ Sympathy

Understanding the difference between Empathy and Sympathy is often the difference between finding the solution to a problem vs lip service.

I can’t recommend a better way to learn about Empathy than above video. If you can only watch one video about learning Empathy, let it be this one then. Please. Be ready to be moved and learn how leading with empathy makes us better humans and designers. You can thank me later.

Understand User’s World View

Once one has understood that sympathy and empathy aren’t alike then it’s time to realize that to propose good solutions, we need to look at the world from the user’s point of view.

Walk in their shoes, you know. See what they are seeing. Think what they are thinking. Feel what they are feeling.

Here is a short video to showcase how we can provide good solutions if we were to only empathize. Once you start seeing the world from other peoples’ lens, your solutions would at least speak the same language as of their problems.

Lead and Design with Empathy

Design thinking and Empathy go hand in hand. There are a lot of ways in which we can empathize and understand the user’s worldview and create meaningful solutions but here is a quick list to design with empathy –

  1. Get out of the building. The below video where Steve Blank (who coined the term) explains what it means to get out of the building and how listening and understanding the need of your users is a highly probable way to succeed! Couldn’t agree more.

Stebe Blank_GetOutofBuilding

  1. Observe. One needs to observe users in their setting to derive meaning from their interactions with existing solutions or their pain points. Pay close attention to your intended user. Try to read their body language. Do they feel comfortable? Are they fidgety? Read their facial expressions. Take the cue from every non-verbal communication. For example- If you are building a mobile gaming app, observe people who play games. Do they use both hands or one? Do they prefer landscape? Or portrait? Observe your users in the wild. Get a little personal (not intrusive) if you have to, but more care you show towards your users, more empathetic your design comes out to be.
  2. Ask open-ended questions. Open-ended questions which take users down a certain train of thought, questions which do not persuade binary responses, questions which make the conversation flow and evolve into interesting interpretations. Something like- “What do you like most about this application, and why?” instead of “Do you like this application?”
  3. Reduce biases. If you actually listen to your user without any disorderly prejudices and assumptions, then you will be able to create much better user experiences. Do not try to impose your viewpoint on users. Be open to fresh perspectives, empty your mind and allow users to express themselves. And when you are attempting to reduce bias, be sure you are aware of the different types of bias. A good designer will always look for ways to overcome Selection bias, Anchoring bias, and Confirmation bias.
  4. Build personas. Building user personas is like bringing your machine code to life by adding human needs and touch to it. Because ultimately, it is the humans who are going to use that product. So if there is anything which can make me feel connected to a robot and trust him with a solution to my problem is- user personas.
  5. Validate.  You need to understand that your client is going to spend a fortune on his idea. So any mind-blowing design needs to be validated against a set of users so that everyone is on the same page and aware of any blind spots if any. Involve ‘real users’ and get their inputs. Take note of how they react when they first interact with the design. Are they able to figure out how to use it? If your design is intuitive, you have won a half of the war. If not, you have to take a step back and highlight every user’s input. No two users will react in exactly the same way which is why you have to take every human emotion into account.

Having said that, at Quovantis we follow these seven design principles to create compelling designs. And I believe, that empathy comes first before everything else. The best designers that I have known or worked with are the ones who had the greatest empathy for their users.

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