What Is Empathetic Design?

Posted on March 26, 2020 | Updated on December 17, 2020

When you think of empathy, or putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, you may not initially think of design. However, keeping the user in mind and putting their needs first when creating material garners positive vibes for your brand. Empathetic design, sometimes called empathic design, is a user-centered method. It requires putting aside preconceived notions and paying attention to the emotions and needs of your target audience.

Getting started with this type of design begins with changing your thinking. Dig into what makes the people you’re designing for tick.

Why Empathy in Design Is Important

Why does it matter if you put yourself in the shoes of the user when creating a design? If you only create things to your liking, you’re missing a significant chance to connect with people. Let’s look at a web design project as an example.

If you’re a 28-year-old professional designer, you may not fully understand the needs of a senior citizen. However, you might have to develop a website covering retirement tips. If you create the site based on your design preferences, it may not work for the target audience.

Instead, look at the ways senior citizens use the internet. Talk to those you know in this generation about what elements they like and don’t like on other websites. Conduct multivariate testing of everything from button placement to the colors you use. If you want your designs to resonate with your audience, inject user insight into the process.

How Empathetic Design Is Used

Now that you have a basic idea of what empathetic design is, you’re probably wondering where designers use it. The simple answer is everywhere — empathy is deployable through any part of the process. You might look at user needs when designing a product. You might also utilize their emotions when marketing to them through website design or social media.

The best way to use this type of design is to study how others have implemented it successfully.

Perfect the Product

Empathetic design helps perfect the product for the end-user. One example of a company that worked hard to get the product just right for customers is Design Continuum. They created a baby bottle design, but they took the time to gather information on what their customers needed. To do this, they studied children in daycare and visited the homes of first-time parents.

Design Continuum observed and took notes on what people liked, didn’t like and the behaviors of the children. They even considered the way most mothers held babies while feeding as they designed the new line of products.

Improve Customer Service

Understanding your customers helps you improve the overall customer experience (CX). Enhancing customer service requires that you look through the eyes of your typical client.

Cleveland Clinic made a video that highlights what most of their patients think as they go through various treatments. Seeing the world through the patient’s eyes allows healthcare providers to be more sympathetic. They can use empathetic design in their hospital to address some issues and work on customer service quality for others.

Create a Better Website

Understanding the behaviors and needs of your average user helps with designing websites. One example of empathetic design is the website for The Association of Mature American Citizens (AMAC). Most of their users are over 50 and may not be as savvy with the internet as younger generations.

The design is kept very simple with a single call-to-action above the fold. However, there are arrows to help the user scroll down and a Live Chat option in case they need help. The site is very intuitive and user-friendly to seniors. They’ve thought through the questions their target audience might have. Note the phrase “Why join AMAC?” on the landing page.

Utilizing Empathy in Your Next Design Job

The advantages of genuinely knowing your user include reducing bounce rates and improving conversions. Are you convinced a rapport with your audience is a necessity in the design process? If so, there are some key ways you can implement empathetic design into your next project. You can use a variety of tools to ensure your plans take into account the needs of others.

Employ the Empathy Circle

You’ll find some clear stages to designing in a user-centered way. An empathy circle prompts you to ask the essential questions and do the research to put yourself in their place.

The Culture of Empathy website offers some tips on empathetic design, including the circle diagram above. You might start by listening to the target audience member or the business you’re designing for. Then, define the problem. Each step in the circle connects to the next and uses collaboration throughout.

Sympathy vs. Empathy

Don’t fall into the trap of pitying those you’re designing for. Let’s say you’re creating a website for foster children who want to connect with their siblings placed in other homes. It’s easy to fall into sympathy or even pity rather than simply empathizing with their needs. Nielson Norman Group created a handy chart that defines the subtle differences between the levels of empathy.

The chart starts with a small circle representing pity. The size of the circle indicates how much impact you have based on your own emotions. As you move up the scale, you eventually get to compassion. This level is above empathy and means the person’s situation moved you emotionally.

As a professional, you may need to separate yourself a bit and go with empathy rather than compassion. Each project is unique, so you’ll have to design how deeply to immerse yourself into the process.

Map Your Empathy

If you’re having a hard time grasping the audience and putting yourself in their shoes, empathy mapping might help. You start with the user in the middle of the map. List out words that detail who the person is. Surrounding the circle is four boxes where you fill in what the person says versus what they think and feel.

Taking the time for empathy mapping helps you see more clearly where your user stands on a variety of issues. What they say and what they really think don’t always match perfectly. Take time to dig into the details of their personality and uncover the emotions driving them. Your designs will be much more intuitive.

Test Everything

Once you’ve thought through who you’re designing for and feel you understand them well, it’s time for testing. Spend time segmenting your audience and conducting split tests. What elements do they respond to best? For instance, you might think a particular call-to-action (CTA) button placement would be best. However, something different might work better for your users.

Seek the Advantages of Empathetic Design

Step up your game with empathetic design, and you’ll attract top clients from all over the world. The better you become at analyzing target audiences, the more on-point your creations will be. Practice, study psychology and pay attention to what makes people tick.

About The Author

Eleanor Hecks is the Editor-in-Chief of Designerly Magazine, an online publication dedicated to providing in-depth content from the design and marketing industries. When she's not designing or writing code, you can find her exploring the outdoors with her husband and dog in their RV, burning calories at a local Zumba class, or curled up with a good book with her cats Gem and Cali.

You can find more of Eleanor's work at www.eleanorhecks.com.

Leave a Comment

Related Posts