Empathy is Not the Answer to UX Design

As UX practitioners, our job is to aid, support, and at times protect end-users. We create experiences that help them. Therefore, it seems a no-brainer that “empathy” benefits UX design.

Many, many, MANY articles have been written about empathy in UX. Nielsen Norman Group has written about Sympathy vs. Empathy in UX. Career Foundry explored Why Empathy Matters as a UX Designer. UX Booth published a multi-part article on Realizing Empathy. And the list goes on.

But empathy is a tall order. To quote UX Planet:

Empathy is the ability to understand other people’s feelings. It is about becoming aware of what other people feel and sharing their emotions. It serves as a way to link yourself and another person together. When talking about “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes”, you’re referring to empathy.

Empathy in UX Design: What It Is and Why It’s Important (UX Planet)

Are UX Designers really sharing the emotions of our audience?

Empathy Fails on the Diversity Front

In a recent Twitter discussion, someone brought up Brene Brown’s video on empathy. Brown explains the difference between sympathy and empathy as the difference between looking down into a hole where someone is, and sitting in the hole with the person.

In response, Twitter user Umbereen S. Nehal pointed out the failings of empathy as a “solution”.

What strikes me is that all the talk of empathy fails on the diversity front

When was the last time you heard a WOC talk about empathy as the solution?

The Brene Brown video says to climb down into the hole & say, “I know what it is like down here”

No, you have no idea.

Umbereen S. Nehal, MD, MPH (@usnehal) August 17, 2019

Nehal is absolutely right. As a white woman I have never experienced being a person of color, and have not been hurt by (for example) everyday racism. When a POC shares their stories, I can sympathize, I can listen, and I can respond. I can’t empathize.

Why Would We Want Empathy in UX Designers?

Here’s my theory: empathy is not helpful in UX design. Listening and learning is.

For example, I can empathize with the fear, anxiety, and emotional pain of sitting with a loved one in the ICU. But when I am designing healthcare experiences, it’s not helpful for me to feel the way I did at that time. It’s actually more helpful for me to keep some objectivity. If I focus on how I felt, I miss opportunities to learn from UX best practices, other people who experienced similar things in a different way, and so much more.

As UX designers, it’s not our job to empathize. It’s our job to listen, learn, experiment, test, and improve.

If there is a place for empathy, perhaps it needs a different connotation. The Interaction Design Foundation published an article with one suggestion:

In the context of design, empathy isn’t necessarily feeling how people feel or stepping into their shoes to adopt their lifestyle and everything that comes with it. Empathy in design is simply taking the time to carry out user research, absorbing it into your thinking to guide your decision-making processes

Empathic Design: Is Empathy the UX Holy Grail? (Interaction Design Foundation)

UX Design Needs Research, Not Empathy

As the Interaction Design Foundation states, we need to conduct research. And we need to use that research to guide decision-making. Our end-users need us to bring an outside view, a measured eye, and additional knowledge to their situations.

We do not need empathy. We need learning and listening.

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