June 14, 2015

The empathy paradox

Empathy is so hot right now.

Whether you're a user experience professional, visual designer, marketer, developer, empathy is the new skill to have. Unfortunately, like most buzz words that become jargon, the value of the word is being lost in the noise.

What really is empathy? The first definition that may likely come to mind is "the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes." Much like its cousins, sympathy and mindfulness, its a skill that requires emotional intelligence and awareness.

On the surface, it makes a lot of sense. By empathizing with our users (clients, colleagues, etc), we are able to create more meaningful experiences, and therefore better designed products. However, there's a paradox to empathy: The more we think we know another's needs, the less effort we make to find out what their real needs are.

A recent study out of London's Imperial college exposed this fact. After having managers describe an existing customer persona and consider the person's thoughts and reactions, the research team asked the managers to anticipate the customer's needs. The findings were not what you would expect. The more empathetic managers were, the more “egocentric” they became; that is, the more likely they were to say that the customers’ preferences were the same as their own.

The problem is, it's impossible to truly know how someone feels, as much as we may think we do. When we project our emotions onto the other person, we are susceptible to thinking we understand their state of mind when we don't. It all boils down to the five most important words to UX Designers: you are not your user.

Rather, to quote Edith Stein, the empathic position is one in which we know that we are not the other.

Once we embrace this mindset, empathy becomes a very powerful tool. Independently, we can anticipate possible areas of stress or confusion (or, joy, or excitement), then we listen to others to test our hypotheses and understand how those experiences truly make them feel.

The only way to truly understand someone else's perspective is to listen to them explain it.

As UX Designers, this has several implications for our process: Be careful when dogfooding and remember that your reaction to the product is inherently affected by bias; recognize that many unknowns factor into someone's impression or experience when using your product; most importantly, realize that the only way to truly understand someone else's perspective is to listen to them express it.