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Empathy. It’s a virtue. It’s a valuable quality in any human being. It’s a distinct advantage in connecting to people. It’s also kind of the latest design buzzword. But it’s not just a trend.

You see, designers are figuring out that being able to empathize with and understand other people leads to creating better interfaces for them. If you know their needs, you can meet them. If you meet their needs, they’ll stick around longer. They might even empathize with your need for their money.

See, there’s a small potential conflict, there. Empathy isn’t something you can pull out of a toolbox when you need results. If there’s anything I ever learned from my old missionary days, it’s that most people can tell when you don’t truly care. Empathy must be a way of life. Yes, empathy can help you make better designs, but it will—it must—also enrich your life. Pun intended.

Empathy can help you make better designs, but it will…also enrich your life

Empathy usually takes work, and requires development. People are often naturally empathetic to friends, and sometimes even to family. Empathy for strangers, however, is more often a learned trait. But the rewards are many, from better work, to better relationships with acquaintances, colleagues, and more. You may also find yourself spending less time thinking ill of others, which will decrease your stress levels a lot.

1. Travel a Bit, If You Can

Before we get to design-specific considerations, there are more general ways to develop empathy. Travel is one of the best ways to do that. Actually seeing other places and cultures can do a lot to dispel preconceptions about others, which will help you empathize. Learning about other cultures can help you design for them, too. A classic example is China, where red is the color of joy. (Incidentally, they still use red stop signs.)

physical travel may not be necessary, but it helps

Now, you may not have the budget to hit up China. Travel to another city then. Walk to a different neighborhood. Try a different restaurant. Failing that, watch some documentaries on people who aren’t like you. Developing a wider perspective is the point here, and physical travel may not be necessary, but it helps.

2. Volunteer and/or Socialize

Find a cause you believe in (preferably one that involves helping humans), and dedicate some time to it. Get in there and meet the people you’re helping. Meet the people helping them. Nothing helps you understand the importance of accessibility like seeing the ancient technology (if any) that some people have to work with. Also, nothing helps you cut down on industry jargon like just talking to a lot of non-designers.

If you don’t have the resources to volunteer for any given cause, just look for time to socialize. Talk to people who aren’t like you, and get them to teach you something about their jobs, or their hobbies. People usually love to talk about themselves (it might take the shyer ones a while), and the things they are passionate about.

3. Talk to the People You’ll be Designing For

Okay, so on big projects, you might actually be able to get a budget for user research. Take full advantage of this. If your site is targeted at, say, doctors, go start talking to doctors. Ask them specific questions about their browsing habits, the way they look for information, where they look first, and so on. Ask them what they’d want most out of a product like yours. If you don’t have a budget for that, you can still talk to any doctors you might know, shoot some questions out on Quora. Reach out.

lay aside your preconceptions, and truly listen

The most important step comes next: lay aside your preconceptions, and truly listen. Take their feedback at face value as much as possible. If they say something like, “I can never find X.”, don’t go thinking, “Well maybe they just didn’t look because they’re busy doctors.” Start with the assumption that they looked.

Unless “X” happens to be front and center on the home page, or something.

4. Consider Emotional Conditions

Many writers have discussed the importance of dealing with things beyond your control. We talk about dealing with screen glare, visual impairments, device size, and so on. We also have to consider how are users are feeling on any given day.

Attempting to shame your users for any reason is going to backfire no matter what their mood

Ask yourself how the experience is going to affect your users based on their mood. For example: If a user is angry and impatient, a modal window is going to drive them away even faster than a normal user. If a user is happy to have finally found what they’re looking for, an efficient, easy shopping cart experience will solidify their good opinion of you. Attempting to shame your users for any reason is going to backfire no matter what their mood.

5. Method Acting

Become the user. Spend a day or so every month using the web with an older device, or throttled speeds. Get outside and browse on your phone in a variety of weather conditions. Use your own site or service, where possible and applicable. Put your site out there in the real world and find everything that bugs you about it. Use an older browser.

It was some time ago, but the years I spent on dial-up while the world progressed to broadband internet all around me… that’s never going away. And I honestly believe that it made me a better designer. There’s no real substitute for experiencing the web in a worst case scenario. The times I had to wait half an hour for a Flash object to load made me strong, and they made me count bytes.


A few years ago, I asked someone who worked with computers all day what a good beginner’s computer class might look like. I jokingly suggested a class on how to visually identify buttons. They said, more or less, “That would be great. I know a lot of people who could use that kind of basic information.”

That doesn’t mean people are dumb. It just means that even in our ever-advancing society, there is a vast disparity between the ways we nerds use the web, and how everyone else does. There’s a difference in how we perceive it. We need to understand these differences if we’re going to design for other people.

And we need to work on understanding them every day.

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