The role of empathy in product design

Good product design is about building a tool that solves a problem. Great product design is about empathizing with your users and building a product they completely fucking love (or hate). Indifference is the enemy. It’s all about sex, love, and violence (thanks for the inspiration Dave!).

Like it or not, we’re just talking, domesticated apes, and no matter how intellectually enlightened we like to think we are, each of us is moved as much by emotion as logic. (PA1) If you want to build a product that moves your users, then you must understand their needs, wants, and desires. You need to get inside their heads Inception-style.

Professional UI/UX designers have formalized this idea into a comprehensive user-centered design process, at the heart of which are idealized user [personas]( created by synthesizing feedback from interviews and other data gathering techniques. It’s a bit wonky, but I’ve found it to be useful as a loose starting point.

Even better, I like talking to users directly. Maybe it’s the writer in me, but once I’ve talked to enough users face-to-face, I can usually feel their pain deep in my bones. I’ll drink a cup of coffee, throw on my Bose noise-canceling headphones (best-gadget-ever!), queue up some chill music on 8tracks, close my eyes and imagine our customers using our product in their day-to-day lives. I’ll try to feel what it’s like. Once I’m in the zone, feeling the world the way they feel it, I’ll run through our product and take notes.

It’s not unlike writing a screenplay. You need to be the character in order to understand how they would react in a given situation. Great screenplays follow well thought-out characters who act incredibly realistically despite being placed in extraordinary situations. The decisions they make drive the plot forward, and when these decisions feel natural, it creates a highly relatable and enjoyable experience for the viewer.

I think it’s critical for us as product designers and entrepreneurs to have empathy for our users. It’s empathy that informs understanding, and understanding that lays the foundation for great product design.

So, if you’re more Scrooge than Donald, how do you increase your capacity for empathy? (PA2) Here are some things that have broadened my mind and pushed me to become a more empathic person.

  1. Travel

    You’re hometown isn’t special. Take a trip. Visit another city. Another country. Another continent. Don’t stay in fancy hotels. Go native. Backpack. Ride a motorcycle through the backcountry. Steep yourself in the local culture and make new friends. Learn their traditions, eat their food, drink their beer (or wine, or sake, or hooch). You’ll quickly gain an appreciation and tolerance for different points-of-view and lifestyles, and you might even have some fun.

  2. Fraternize with people who are not like you

    See the dude with the piercings and tattoos? Go talk to him. Ask him where he’s from. What he does. What he wants out of life. If you’re a dude with piercings and tattoos, go talk to a guy in a suit. Ask the girl with the hemp skirt what music she listens to. Go outside of your comfort zone and surround yourself with people from all walks of life. You’ll learn pretty quickly that our differences are much more superficial than our similarities.

  3. Do something you’ve never done before

    Learn how to play an instrument. Go skydiving. Write a play. Cook a meal from scratch. Try something new that you’ve never done before even if you’re worried you might suck. New experiences force you to see the world from a different perspective. And, maybe you’ll like it and turn your hobby into a career.

  4. Always ask yourself, “Why?”

    Instead of assuming, ask yourself “Why?” There’s always a reason why someone does something, no matter how crazy their actions might seem. In order to truly empathize, you need to understand where they’re coming from. This understanding always starts with the question, “Why?”

What have you done to improve your own capacity for empathy? Hit me up on twitter @mbeckett and let me know!

Philosophical Asides

PA1: Neurobiologist Antonio Damasio has spent his career studying the interplay between emotions, feelings, and decision-making. Emotions are actually required to make decisions, without them we end up in the human equivalent of an infinite loop.

PA2: What’s incredibly scary is that we are less empathetic as a society than we used to be by nearly 40%! Check out this Art of Manliness post for a great read about empathy in modern society.


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