What most UX designers get wrong about empathy

The importance of empathizing with the right people

One person talking as an another person listens.
Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

In the world of UX design, designers often talk about empathy. It’s the first of five stages in the design thinking process.

Empathy is generally defined by “the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.”

Empathy is our ability to see the world through other people’s eyes.

One of the first lessons designers are taught is to learn about our users by observing, listening to and understanding their goals and frustrations.

Empathizing with users is necessary to dig deeper into their own experiences and understand the problems they face in reality. After gathering insights, this helps designers define a problem statement, which “frames the problem (or need) in a way that is actionable for designers.”

A diagram from the Interaction Design Foundation of the non-linear process of Design Thinking.

So it makes sense that empathy plays a significant role in UX design.

However, too often articles forget to mention the other people that designers should have empathy towards, and that’s each other. Our teammates, stakeholders and fellow product builders.

We make up one team in a larger organization that works towards achieving a common goal.

Designers must collaborate with product managers, developers, researchers, content writers, marketing, sales and other stakeholders in order to deliver a successful product to our users.

However, we often focus solely on the users and their problems that we can get into situations with each other that slow down our progress.

Simply put, we forget to show empathy for the people that we work with on a daily basis.

Outside of the office, we are all people with our own thoughts, opinions and emotions.

Some might agree that it’s more important to have empathy with each other first, rather than our users, as it leads to better collaboration and understanding amongst team members.

So what are some ways that we can empathize with each other?

Before getting into a difficult meeting or project, talk to your teammates and ask how they are truly doing.

  • How was their weekend?
  • How is their overall mood today?
  • Is there anything on their mind that’s distracting them?
  • How are they feeling about their work?

Perhaps your teammate experienced a tragic family emergency over the weekend. Or maybe they are just burnt out from working too hard.

By understanding how another person is feeling in general, we can remind ourselves that life is more than just about work and there might be more important things affecting each person’s life.

Two women walking down an office hallway talking to each other.
Photo by LinkedIn Sales Solutions on Unsplash

When you’re speaking with someone, focus on the other person instead of yourself. Actively listen to the things they are saying and digest the information.

In the case of a debate or argument, don’t interrupt or talk over the other person. Wait until they finish communicating their thoughts.

Give yourself time to process the information before responding. Sometimes, we can be quick to defend ourselves without even caring about what the other person just said or understanding how they feel.

Don’t listen to respond. Listen to understand.

When you practice empathetic listening, you improve communication with your teammates, which helps build trust. This in turn will help boost collaboration as you are able to connect on a deeper level.

In conflict scenarios, listening to understand will help you arise to solutions or compromises quicker and relieve any tension between parties.

Would you want to work with someone who is defensive, bitter or disrespectful to talk to?

Your attitude is the manner in which you feel, think and respond to experiences. It can influence the things we say or think and the way we express our thoughts and emotions.

A few attitudes of mindfulness include:

  • Non-judgement — Being open-minded to different ideas, values, opinions or perspectives without assigning labels to them
  • Accepting — Being willing to acknowledge that things are the way they are, even if they aren’t the way we wanted them to be
  • Patience — Understanding that things happen in their own time
  • Gratitude — Being thankful and appreciative by showing kindness

By practicing mindfulness in our daily lives, our attitude will shine through with positivity and benefit our working relationships as well.

Diversity in teams is crucial to a team’s success. When people from diverse backgrounds, whether in experience, education or culture, get together, each person brings a unique perspective and expertise to the table. But how can we effectively work together with such diversity?

If you think about meeting someone new, you would try to find some common ground that you can both relate to. Perhaps you share a hobby or childhood experience.

Identifying similarities can help us build true connections and allow us to see each other as human beings, regardless of where we work or what we do.

On the other hand, it’s important to acknowledge our differences as well. Each unique perspective can help gain a better understanding of a problem and lead to a wider range of possible outcomes.

A diverse group of people meeting in a room.
Photo by Mapbox on Unsplash

Similarities help build trust and connections, while differences make teams more effective at problem solving.

If you have a difference of opinion, be transparent with one another and try to understand where the other person is coming from based on their goals and priorities. Design can often be subjective, so being able to agree to disagree can help prevent future stress or conflict.

Let’s not lose sight of the people that we regularly rely on to help achieve our goals.

Sure, users are important to the design thinking process. But without establishing strong, healthy relationships with our teammates, the business and the users will suffer.

The next time you’re at work, be curious about the people you work with.

Get to know them on a deeper level.

Try to see things from their perspective, even if you don’t agree.

Listen to understand and respond with an attitude of mindfulness.

And lastly, celebrate your team’s diversity to develop a deeper appreciation for one another.

Once we have empathy for each other, it will lead to improved cross-functional collaboration and positive outcomes for our users.

Thanks for reading!

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