Empathy in UX Research: Why Does it Matter?


What does it mean to be empathetic? Why is it important? In everyday life, empathy is a way of understanding and sharing the feelings of others. It enables us to form deeper relationships, to think about how our actions affect others, and to care about each other as human beings. It’s a vital part of trying to make the world a better place for all. 


Empathy is also one of the most important tools we use as UX researchers. Just like empathy in our normal lives, empathy while conducting UX research helps us deeply understand and embody a user’s needs, goals, and pain points. Empathy is a necessary ingredient in impactful, innovative, human-centered research. It’s the special little sauce that helps researchers perform the alchemy of turning data into recommendations that can really make a difference in the user experience. 


Empathy is a UX researcher’s superpower that can, and should, be used at every stage of the research process. Below are some ideas of what that could look like. These are by no means exhaustive, but rather meant to spark thinking about how you could harness your empathic powers to further your research and goals. 


How does empathy relate to UX research?

Empathy is incredibly important in UX research. As researchers, we’re meant to advocate for the users we talk to. We’re supposed to understand their experiences, what they want to accomplish, and what’s getting in their way. The best way to do this is to, as much as possible, see the world and the product through their eyes. We need to see our users as human beings who experience what we create. 


As Sarah Gibbons of the Nielsen Norman Group put it in a 2019 article on the differences between sympathy and empathy, “the true goal of design is not to be nice to users, but to empower them.” It’s important to deeply understand what is happening in people’s minds when they potentially misunderstand a feature, when they can’t navigate a prototype, or can’t accomplish their goals with a service. We need to understand their motivations, their hopes, and their priorities. Once we’ve understood the way our users see and experience the world, we can get a more comprehensive picture of how they engage with products and services, and build better solutions that help them fulfill their needs. 


Removing your own point of view

In order to achieve empathy with users, you must first consider your own point of view. It’s important to be able to recognize your own perspective, to acknowledge it, and to try as best as we can to separate it from our participants' experiences. This should be an ongoing process and should occur throughout the research process. 


In study design, it could mean making sure to ask very open-ended questions so that participants are really able to express what they think, as much as possible – assuming they have no prior knowledge of the things we’re asking them about. (This is less likely when you’re working with a highly specialized or particular group of users that necessarily share specialized technical knowledge). 


Not only do we want participants to be able to share everything they’re thinking, but we also want to make sure they don’t feel judged for not immediately understanding what we’re asking of them. 


In interview sessions, this could mean really listening to your participants and asking thoughtful, probing questions that allow them to fully explain themselves. It’s not about whether we think they’ve said the right thing or the wrong thing, but more about truly understanding why they’re saying what they’re saying, why they’re experiencing what they’re experiencing. This also involves identifying any defensiveness you’re feeling about the product or prototype, and pushing that aside. 


For more on this, check out this awesome UX Collective article on setting aside your own point of view in UX research. Rob Strati’s piece includes specific, concrete things you can do throughout the research process to make sure you’re removing your own point of view, which I find especially useful. 


In particular, Strati provides these tips on how to focus on empathizing with your participant during a session: 


  1. Keep bringing yourself back to listen
  2. Remember to listen to what they don’t say out loud
  3. Pay attention to facial expressions
  4. Read body language
  5. Understand that pauses have meaning
  6. Notice what might be a motivation or commitment underneath what they are saying or doing
  7. Continue noticing your point of view as it comes up.” 


Empathy and stakeholders

Just like we need to cultivate empathy within ourselves as researchers, we also need to ensure that this empathy with users is communicated to and shared with our stakeholders. This is something to consider when designing final reports. A few ways to ensure that you’re communicating this clearly to your stakeholders is through using narrative and storytelling techniques, using fully fleshed-out, detailed personas to illustrate the needs of a group of users, and even video clips. Video clips can be especially useful with building empathy with your stakeholders, as they can then put a face and a name to the very real person experiencing these very real issues. Even if you are protecting participants' identities, you can still use fictional names and avatars to bolster your audience’s empathy. 


Key Lime Interactive and empathy

At Key Lime Interactive, we thrive on our researchers’ empathetic capabilities. We collaborate with organizations like yours to conduct studies that get to the heart of what people really need. Reach out to learn how we can work together to discover the full potential of your projects, empowering you to make informed decisions that lead to exceptional user experiences.

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