User Experiences and Empathy


I have been reading a lot lately, mostly around how to develop better user experiences. Most of my recent reads have been less focused on programming languages and more focused on strategies and thought processes that empower developers to build better user experiences.

The bottom line is, the user experience is arguably the most important aspect of any project. Sure, it is important to have a functioning application that works as expected, but if the user experience does not let your users use the application functionality to solve their problems and meet their needs, the extra features you added to the application code are worthless. This does not mean that the user experience of every application needs to be built in some form of rich application environment (i.e. Silverlight, WPF, Flex, etc.). Even though this would certainly be nice eye candy, some applications just do not warrant the need for a rich application interface. But that does not mean the user experience is not important – you can develop a great user experience regardless of the UI technology.

One of the books I am currently reading is “Subject to Change: Creating Great Products and Services for an Uncertain World” by a group of authors from Adaptive Path, a user experience strategy and design company located in San Francisco. Here are a few excellent points I have picked up on so far that I thought were worth sharing.

###Empathy is your most valuable tool A key point that is stressed throughout the book is the use of empathy in user experience design. To quote the folks from Adaptive Path, “empathy is an understanding of a person or group’s subjective experience by sharing that experience vicariously.” If you have empathy for your audience, you can really start to see what drives their behaviors rather than just observing them as some type of action.

###Empathy is not sympathy Empathy and sympathy are two completely different emotions. Sympathy could be (1) pity for the user or it could be (2) a feeling generated by actually sharing an experience with the user, both of which do not have a place in the software design process. Pity can sometimes lead to a sense of superiority, which is definitely not what you want. And If the user and the designer both share the same experience, the designer’s objectivity can be removed and he/she can sometimes get “too close” to the problem. Empathy however keeps you at a distance with an objective point of view.

###Users are human beings and not market segments Having empathy for your users and understanding them as human beings and not as market segments or demographics will greatly increase your chances of developing a quality user experience. One example of developing empathy, which is mentioned in the book, is the redesign of two Huggies products by Kimberly-Clark. After conducting a significant amount of research in families homes, they noticed that parents were often struggling to hold babies while diapering and bathing them. Based on these observations, the product designers at Kimberly-Clark redesigned their baby wipes packaging to make it easier to pull out wipes with one hand. By observing users in their homes while they live their everyday lives, researchers were able to develop empathy for the users (in this case, the parents) in regards to how they use the product.

So the key points are (1) empathy, not sympathy, and (2) human beings, not market segments. Once you understand these points, you are well on your way to better understanding your users and their needs.

Anything else you think is key when it comes to empathy and user experiences? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons license.

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