What we Learn from Empathy in User Experience

May 2017

If you've ever read or heard anything user experience related, you've probable heard something like “empathise with the end user”. But what does it actually mean, empathise?

Empathy: the capability of feeling what someone else is feeling

Often people make the mistake of confusing empathy and sympathy. Sympathy is the concern for the well-being of someone else, to feel sorry for someone’s trouble or grief. In the case of user experience design, that would be feeling sorry that your users can't navigate your website.

Empathy is very different to sympathy as it involves feeling the way someone else feels. For example, putting yourself into your user's shoes to understand how they are perceiving your product and why they aren't using your product they way you intended.

This video provides a simple and visual explanation of the difference between empathy and sympathy.

In the video, Dr.Brené Brown paraphrases Theresa Wiseman's 4 qualities of empathy:

  • the ability to take someone else's perspective and recognize it as their truth
  • staying out of judgement
  • recognizing emotion in other people
  • and the ability to communicate that you do

The biggest point is that empathy drives connection. When we're building a solution for an audience, the ability to connect with the users will determine the quality of the product

One of my favourite examples to illustrate this point is a story from the experiences of David and Tom Kelley, from their book "Creative Confidence".

In a project to decrease premature infant mortality rates in the developing world, a group of engineers designed a portable infant incubator.

Most of the premature infant deaths were due to hypothermia after the baby had been taken home. So the engineering team developed a portable “incubator” that mothers could heat up to a specific degree shown on an LCD display.

While testing the prototype to explore how different cultures accept or reject the device, the team learned that mothers in India were very skeptical of Western Medicine. So skeptical, they stated, they significantly reduce dosages despite the doctors prescription.

Not heating the incubator to the prescribed degree could be detrimental to the infant. To embrace this bias, the team changed the display from reading a degree to reading "OK" when ready.

It's by empathising and connecting with their users that the team discovered how to account for cultural biases, to assure the full potential of the incubator, and to truly help solve the problem they intended to.


Empathy is a significant tool for user experience design. Connecting with your audience and really putting yourself into their shoes to feel the way they feel about using your product, will improve your process immensely.

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