Empathy has always been an important element of UX design. But with 2021 set to be the year of compassion and understanding, empathy is more important than ever in the creation of online user experiences.

Empathy and web design

But what is empathy in web design and how can you make sure you take it onboard?

Empathy in design is important because it enables the design to mirror and reflect its understanding of the users’ needs, motivations, frustrations and goals. This doesn’t just apply to the design of websites, it applies to the design of any user experience, product and service.

But in web design, where the user experience is so personal and individual to that user, and often leads to further action such as direct contact in the form of an enquiry or purchase, empathy is particularly crucial. If you want to resonate and appeal to your users, empathy has to be part of your design mindset.

Empathy as part of your design-thinking

  • Listening

It has been said that the ability to listen with empathy to users is one of the most important elements of design thinking. To listen with empathy, it’s necessary to avoid solutioning before you know the full nature of the problem you’re being asked to solve. Remain completely open minded to users’ frustrations being expressed so that you understand the issues fully.

  • Forget the facts

Empathy is about putting yourself in another person’s shoes, which means experiencing what they are experiencing. A user’s experience is entirely subjective, and not to do with facts or tried and tested methods, but the satisfaction of their individual motivations and feelings. Forget the facts about what you know will work for a problem and jump into your users’ shoes to try to understood in detail about what they’re looking for.

An empathetic solution for a consumer is about as far away as it’s possible to get from a one-size-fits-all solution – a way of producing products and services based on a law of averages that went out last century.

  • Adopt a beginner’s mindset

Forget all you know about web design and experience, and become like the user. You want to really get you into the mindset of your user, to listen and discuss their issues with them without your inbuilt reassurance of technology. Remember your user doesn’t have this and you risk putting it as a barrier between you and your user, harming the empathising process.

  • Have patience

Listen. Listen. Then listen some more. Yes, it takes time and you might have other things to do, but keep in mind that the real crux of the issue for a user may not come out in the first ten minutes of consultation. It’s not guaranteed that users are the best at articulating issues either so hang on in there with patience to keep going with the listening so you get a full picture of the subjective landscape.

  • Don’t ask too many questions

It’s tempting, without even knowing it, to drive your consultation session to a solutioning one by asking questions. You won’t be able to help it, but your questions will be loaded with your own self-motivation to conclude, tie up and wrap up. Avoid this, as you will inadvertently steer the consultation away from the empathy-based solution you want to create.

If you need to ask questions, ask open, probing questions that don’t confine the user, such as questions beginning ‘how’, ‘what’ and ‘why’.

Empathy is crucial to business success

By applying empathy across your entire design process, you will give unrivalled value in the quality of the user experience and web design you create.

If you also apply empathy, at the same time as you apply it to user experience, to culture and context, for instance to issues that affect us, such as a global pandemic, homeworking, and greener travel, you will naturally arrive at a solution that is also more sustainability, desirable and viable for the future. 

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