With the recent interest on empathy in design, many designers and researchers in the UX community are writing on this construct and imploring other designers to utilize more empathy in their design process. In fact, a quick search on Google for “Empathy & UX” will net you more articles than you can read in a week!
Unfortunately, interesting as these articles might be, one soon realises that each and every author has their own interpretation of the term “empathy”. From “understanding the feelings and thoughts of others” to “sharing the same feelings as others” or “a feeling of affinity with others”. Empathy is being defined in a variety of ways that do not necessarily coincide with each other. To quote Product Designer Emily Campbell,
“Like most buzzwords that become jargon, the value of the word empathy is being lost in the noise.”
At Object Experience, after self-insight, we believe that empathy is one of the most important assets for a UX’er. This blog post aims to decode this elusive construct and convey to the community exactly how to effectively embrace empathy in the design thinking process, especially with the help of cutting edge research technologies such as eye tracking.
What is empathy?
Empathy comes from both the Greek root “pathos” which means emotion, feeling, suffering, or pity, as well as the German word “Einfühlung” which was used to refer to the human capacity’ to experience a sense of unity with the artist of a piece of art. Interestingly, the concept of “Einfühlung” helps us to understand that the act of empathizing needs not be limited to human beings, and it can be extended to objects and even ideas and symbols among other things that we can empathize with.
Empathy is a multidimensional construct. In psychology research, empathy has been dissected into two distinct types:
- Emotional empathy refers to the ability to understand and identify with someone else’s emotional states without being overtaken by them. This kind of empathy often happens automatically and unconsciously.
- Cognitive empathy refers to the objective understanding of other’s perspectives, context, goals and motivations, and is largely consciously driven.
As with many elusive constructs, empathy receives a fair amount of debate on whether there is a need to distinct it into the 2 above-mentioned types. Some researchers have argued that emotional empathy is a more primitive type of empathy that preempts cognitive empathy and is thus necessarily more important (McLaren, 2013). However, recent neurocognitive research has found that they are sufficiently different processes in terms of brain region activations, suggesting that cognitive empathy is no less important than emotional empathy (Nummenmaa, Jussi, Riitta, & Jari, 2008). This finding actually partially echos early propositions that argue “true empathy” integrates both types of empathy (Staub, 1987).
Role of empathy in UX Design & Research
Empathy underpins human-centered design and the UX community more than anything else. Developers and designers who do not understand the importance of empathy will find it difficult appreciating how different users think and work, and often assume that every user will approach and solve problems in the same way as themselves. Peter Smart, a designer who had gone on a journey to solve 50 design problems in 50 days mentioned that:
“Empathic research helps us understand our users’ needs beyond the functional, enabling us to develop more appropriate design outcomes. It is one of a raft of valuable processes and tools, on its own seemingly no more important than any other. However, while good designers understand the tools, great designers understand people.”
To put it simply, “great designers” are those who have a thorough and holistic understanding of their users, not just with their overt needs, but also their underlying implicit and latent needs.
In the UX community, empathy often takes on a strong emotional tone, because an “experience” is often associated to emotions, and companies that capitalize on users’ emotions in their marketing efforts often stand out. This is predominantly because emotions are more primal states of mind than rational thinking, and that the emotional brain processes sensory information much quicker than the cognitive brain.
However, as mentioned above, “great” UX design and empathic research requires a thorough and holistic understanding of users. This requires both emotional and cognitive empathy, and not just either one of them. Cognitive empathy is just as important, as understanding users’ multi-faceted cognitions (e.g. contexts, goals, motivations and problem solving approach) is required to make sense of the emotions and feelings that are elicited.
Some people are naturally more empathic than others. Highly emphatic people usually have a curious and sensitive personality, and are genuinely curious about others, be it a friend, stranger or even an enemy. They also strive to challenge their own preconceptions and prejudices of others by searching for commonalities, rather than taking human differences on face value.
That does not, however, mean that empathy is an innate trait and cannot be cultivated.
Broadening your horizons is one good way to develop empathy. The greater you immerse yourself into different experiences and expand your social circle, the higher tendency you will share a common experience with others, and hence real connections. Getting out from your comfort zone and travelling to different cultures can be a good way to gain experiences outside of your own community. You will not only appreciate human differences better, but also experience many of the real problems people are facing which you may not have encounter otherwise. If you are low on travelling budget, try helping people in your own community, be it counselling or volunteer work. Experiencing real problems faced by real people yourself is the best way to understand them.
Interestingly, empathy also starts from understanding yourself. Practice mindfulness, whether that be yoga, meditation, sport or other pursuits that raise your awareness of your inner voice. Only through a greater awareness of our own attitudes and thought processes, can we then understand that our perceptions of others are often skewed by the self-reference bias that are inherent in all of us. True empathy requires an objective empathic process, and being mindful (intentional, accepting and non-judgmental) definitely helps. If mindfulness is too elusive a construct for you to grasp, maybe learning how to “Listen Better” would be easier to digest.
Deepen empathy with Eye Tracking
The human mind is complex. It’s next to impossible to read someone’s mind even if you are highly empathic, but there are ways to get closer. As far as UX research is concerned, we believe that Eye Tracking is one of the best ways to help us empathise with our users. Eye tracking allows us to directly see unconscious reactions during a usability testing experience, and this reveals what attracts consumers’ attention without requiring us to interrupt participants or expect them remember exactly what they have done. Most humans’ visual behaviour operates below the level of conscious awareness. People simply are not aware where their eyes are going, much less can they recall it.
From our experience, eye tracking helps us to better enquire about a consumer’s experience. When a task is complete, showing the participant where they looked and undertaking an empathic user interview we can gain deep insights into their experience.
Other than allowing us to deeply understand users, eye tracking numbers also offer a simple way to communicate usability findings and speak a language that executive stakeholders understand. By speaking a common language, we are essentially sharing a common experience, allowing us to be more empathic with one and other.
-Ying Ki and James
McLaren, K. (2013). The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill. Louisville, Colorado: Sounds True.
Nummenmaa, L., Jussi, H., Riitta, P., & Jari, K. H. (2008). Is Emotional Contagion Special? An Fmri Study on Neural Systems for Affective and Cognitive Empathy. NeuroImage, 43(3), 571-580.
Staub, E. (1987). Commentary on Part 1. In N. Eisenberg, & J. Strayer, In Empathy and Its Development (pp. 103-115). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.