Walk a mile in my shoes

Just because empathy is becoming a popular term in design doesn’t mean we should discount it. Using empathy in user testing can help create a better experience for users and better results for you.

Empathy allows a person to understand and share another person’s feelings from their perspective. It is not sympathy which in order to share another person’s feelings you must draw on your own past experiences. Empathy requires you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes to understand their feelings.

Empathy has become a design principle recently, especially in User Centered Design. In order to make apps, websites, programs more accessible designers are putting themselves in their user’s’ shoes to understand the user’s needs. It is asking and observing how, and when people are using your app/program. Is it on the run with only one hand while they are trying to board a plane with carry-ons. Using empathy also starts designers thinking about how to make their creations more accessible to all users. Can a person who is colorblind use our app or do our color choices make it harder for them?

Lack of empathy can come into play in user testing in a very http://medrxdot.com simple way – assuming users like failing at assigned tasks. I mean who doesn’t like the feeling of having strangers watch you try complete tasks and judge how well you the interface does? While users are told that they are not being tested, it can be easy for people to forget that as the test happens. To help put yourself in the user’s mindset Jakob Neilsen, of the Neilsen Norman group recommends being the user in user testing once every two years to remind yourself how stressful it can be.

Employing empathy can help you gain a greater understanding of what problems the user has. Is it the interface? Is it personal preference on that shade of blue? And if it is that shade of blue, is it really that the user is color blind and can’t see details?  Or something unrelated to the test entirely? Are you users being “nice” and not telling you all the issues they have because they don’t want to be mean to the design? It can help you to determine when to push users for deeper answers and when to back off.

Empathy allows you to have a better interactions with a diverse set of users. By stepping until users’ shoes, it can help you from treating users are the same. After running tests and meeting people, faces and interactions can mush together. It will help fight your user fatigue.

Empathy can be tricky though. It is a skill that has to be worked at in order to fully understand it. Empathizing is not pandering though. Agreeing with everything that is being said is not the same as understanding or even trying to understand where the user is coming from. Trying to appear empathetic to create a false connection with users can also backfire.

While being empathetic to users during testing might not be spring to mind when creating you plan for testing, it should be something that you as the facilitator keep in mind. It will make users more comfortable in the testing situation which can result in better tests for you.

Photo from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nasacommons


Chan Lim, S. (2014, November 4). What is Empathy? Retrieved October 1, 2015, from https://uxmag.com/articles/what-is-empathy

Nielsen, J. (2011, August 15). Try to Be a Test User Sometime. Retrieved September 30, 2015, from http://www.nngroup.com/articles/try-to-be-a-test-user-sometime/

Rothenberg, M. G. (2015). Empathy. Encyclopedia Americana. Retrieved October 4, 2015, from Grolier Online http://ea.grolier.com.ezproxy.pratt.edu:2048/article?id=0142720-00

Sauro, J. (2012, May 9). 5 Valuable Skills for UX Professionals. Retrieved October 1, 2015, from http://www.measuringu.com/blog/five-ux-skills.php