True empathy is hearing and understanding in order to implement solutions to meet the actual user needs, not just our interpretation of those needs.
A crucial part of product design is learning how to approach user problems with empathy. Empathy is the ability to share and understand the feelings of others. Seeing how other people experience things enables us to focus on what matters most—solving real problems that people have—rather than what we think matters.
Those of us who have been around for a minute know the obligation of designing responsibly, which at a minimum is designing with comprehensive empathy. Despite agreement that the onus is on us as product designers to look after the few amongst the many, to examine worst cases over edge cases, to learn from our mistakes; we still blaze through design work without proper empathetic processes.
When we design products, services, and tools that people rely on for their health, education, happiness, livelihood, security, and much more; the first step is to ensure that our understanding is not impaired by our own beliefs, perspectives, and experiences.
The cost of this short term is that we miss the mark. We design for ourselves instead of the people we should be looking out for: our users. The long term implications are great and often unknown. We’ve already witnessed extreme scenarios: people feeling compromised by how their personal data is handled, barriers strengthening across political parties based on the circulation of fake news, and people’s reputations being jeopardized through manipulation and misunderstanding.
Consider how the following habits lead to missed opportunities of demonstrating empathy:
These habits are problematic and difficult to correct because they’re not just habits in design, they’re habits in our daily lives. Let’s go through some examples.
The easiest way for us to understand others’ experiences is through our own. When we hear people talk about things we relate to, we want to be able to say: “I get it. I get you.” However, we often don’t get what they’ve told us. We don’t get their point of view. And the problem is this: we stop listening after we think we’ve understood.
A common scenario where we displace another’s experience with our own is grief.
Grief is personal and complex. All too often, we detract from it by latching on as a “shared” experience. Additionally, there’s the discomfort of deep and excruciating emotional distress, and we want to avoid that pain, soothe it, or even subconsciously override it.
We have a psychological need for relatedness; it not only helps us feel connected, but it helps us understand the world around us. Our responses to grief are rarely meant to minimize a person’s feelings or make the conversation about ourselves. However if taken too far, infiltrating another’s experience with our own becomes narcissistic listening.
In product design, this often plays out in user interviews. We listen to people sharing their experiences, and we wait to hear something we relate to. When an anecdote comes along the sparks a connection, we latch on to that and cement it as fact; because we can corroborate.
Further down the line, we will fight tooth and nail to defend that principle, because it’s become personal.
There’s a movie from the 1980s starring Tom Cruise called The Color of Money where he plays the student of a pool hustler, played by Paul Newman.
Cruise is at his best in this role, playing Vincent Lauria: bold, charismatic, and arrogant. Early in the film, “Fast Eddie” Felson, the hustler, is scoping out his new protégé. The conversation goes down like this:
Eddie: You’re some piece of work… You’re also a natural character.
Vincent: You see? I been tellin’ [Carmen] that. I got natural character.
Eddie: That’s not what I said, kid. I said you are a natural character; you’re an incredible flake.
Maybe you can relate.
We take things that are said and convert them into things we want to hear. When we play them back from our memory, they fit desirably into our stories and our perceptions of ourselves.
An example of this in product design is translating data points into a solution we’ve already decided on. It may be that we heard the problem at a glance and let our creative minds race ahead to do the problem solving. Because we’ve already landed on a direction, we fail to let the data lead. Instead, we force information into a path that leads directly to our established solution.
As we move along in the process, we cling to that solution, not only because we’re attached to it, but because we value our ability to lead with a vision, despite the solution being a potential mismatch.
Selective listening is not uncommon. Think about a child who pretends not to hear reminders to do chores but always hears dinner’s call. We as fully functioning adults make habits of listening only to the parts we want to hear too.
There’s a common quote that many of us have probably used: “Great minds think alike.” In fact, this one’s so common that we can shorten it now to just “Great minds,” and with a look and a grin clearly say: “We’re both super smart and we unknowingly came to the same conclusion.”
How we interpret and use that quote would be much different if we had the rest of the quote in context:
“Great minds think alike, but fools seldom differ.”
We have natural tendencies to take things out of context. Whether these fragments are charming phrases, shocking revelations, or personal affirmations, we filter because we find things personally stimulating.
In product design, this often results in a failure to connect data and user research. We see a trend or hear an anecdote that we like, and we latch onto it. We fail to dig deeper—to recall the larger data set or the context of the conversation.
If we stick to these out-of-context fragments and say them loudly enough and long enough, we can get throngs of other people to follow despite the lack of context. They believe the piece we’ve pulled out because we have presented it as true.
Using personal experience, interpreting our agenda, and extracting what we want all lead us to hear what we want. Be it narcissistic or selective listening, it leads us to confirmation bias: the tendency to process information by looking for or interpreting information that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs.
Confirmation bias is particularly dangerous when you’re responsible for designing products that affect people’s lives, even with unknown implications. It gives you blind spots, and it prevents you from understanding accurately.
Listening to user stories, synthesizing themes, analyzing data, sharing perspectives with stakeholders, and making design decisions are all at risk when we give into this bias.
How can we avoid these poor practices in our work? While these habits are innate, empathy can be trained.
Distraction is a key detractor from accurate processing. When you’re listening—be it in a user interview or just a meeting—clear your environment of the obvious distractions and those which might be less obvious. Actively pay attention; passively is not enough. Record notes to help your working memory retain what you’ve heard.
Context is crucial to accurate understanding. When listening, it’s easy to lose context, sometimes because speakers don’t always give it. Sometimes speakers don’t articulate very clearly. Use open-ended questions—questions starting with what? why? how?— to uncover people’s emotional drivers. Ask for clarification when you don’t understand what’s being said.
Instant data points reinforcing your assumptions can be too good to be true. Go after a more accurate data set by assembling multiple forms of both qualitative and quantitative input: user research, data, and industry knowledge. Seek out more information until you’re sure that you know both the what and the why, and the data you’ve collected tells a story on its own, without you there to narrate it. Remove “I think” from your vocabulary.
What you’ve heard and come to believe might be right, but there may be other approaches that are equally valid. Once you think you have a good contextual understanding, put yourself in a place to defend an opposing argument. Tear your own understanding apart, see where it breaks. Build a case for the opposition. See where it stands firm.
What you know to be true is often different from the actual truth. When you state something as “known,” clearly identify where it came from: user research, data, industry knowledge, or personal or anecdotal knowledge. By categorizing your “knowledge” correctly, you can not only identify facts from perspectives, but you can also triangulate sources with more accurate information.
True empathy in product design is hearing and understanding in order to implement solutions to meet the actual user needs, not just our interpretation of those needs.
As designers, we are taught to have assumptions and draw conclusions. Our egos and habits often push us to translate those into judgments and opinions favorably for us, rather than understanding and working from the evidence we have at hand. Instead of making the act of decision making a relied-upon skill, try making the act of understanding evidence your superpower. The people you design for will thank you for it.