Empathy in Design: Build Deeper Connections by Understanding Your Audience

Empathy is at the heart of building user connections and brand loyalty.

Empathy in Design: Build Deeper Connections by Understanding Your Audience
Katie Metz // Adriana Lacy Consulting

Merriam-Webster has the most accurate definition: “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.” It may be obvious why this is important in our personal lives, but when it comes to design, how much thought does your design give to empathy? 

Some call it the “cornerstone of any successful design project,” others refer to it as “the first stage in the design thinking process.” Whatever you call it, making sure it is front and center of your design process will propel your brand and build customer loyalty. 

When you design for empathy you are not only considering the needs of your customer, but also listening to what frustrates them, or creates any dissatisfaction. In order to successfully achieve empathy with your audience considering their needs and feelings must be present every step of the way. 

The reason why empathy is so important is because when we witness another’s discomfort firsthand, we often want to do everything we can to help. This is the driving force behind change. 

It is vital to understand the frustrations that may occur when users interact with our products and services. Imagine a user who struggles to read small text on a web page or click targets that are too small for your user’s fingers. These may seem like minor issues but happen to be some of the most common user frustrations

Which is why empathy should take center stage during all points of design. 

Four Tips for Building Empathy 

Interview your customers/audience

Ask users questions such as, “What happened the last time you opened an email and linked to our website?”  Or, “Tell me about your experience using our new product.” Record the interview if possible and encourage an open conversation. Your results will aid in understanding their motivations and feelings so you can design for their needs

Keen observation 

If you can observe your users while engaging with your product or service, you are more likely to notice their pain points during the process. If this is not possible, consider asking if they are willing to record themselves, perhaps over a period of time so as not to be self-conscious. 

Consider this situation in an airport where a change in design can have a tremendous impact on users. By recording and observing patrons, the frustrations were noted and acted upon resulting in a more harmonious user experience. 

Ask what, how, and why questions

Asking what, can help gather information about what happened. This could be a user navigating to your website and filling out a form. What was the process like? Did they encounter any difficulties? 

Asking how can reveal much about the ease of use. Was it an easy or frustrating experience? Does their body language show difficulty or ease?

Finally, asking why they were motivated to do what they did should provide some insight. The answers to these questions help eliminate any assumptions you may have made about your user's experience. 

Empathy map

An empathy map serves a similar function as a user persona, but helps to better understand users needs. The visual process of an empathy map uses four quadrants with the user in the center. Each quadrant represents what the user says, thinks, does, and feels about your product or service.  

For example, when you know a user feels overwhelmed when they enter your website, scaling back the visuals may be in order. Or, perhaps a user compares your product to others. This might propel you to create a comparison page within your site for easy reference.  

Consider these tips for building empathy in the design process whether building or updating your website, products, or services. By keeping your customers' feelings at the center of your design, they are sure to appreciate your commitment to their satisfaction and return the favor with brand loyalty.

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