Practical Empathy in UX design

Posted by Eman Abulmagd on

Empathy is a word we usually hear in casual (and mostly emotional) contexts. We mention "practicing empathy" when someone we care about is going through a tough situation. We want to be there for them and understand how they feel. You might think that you're more likely to say in a chat with a close friend or a counseling session than it is to say it in a business meeting.

Although this is what most people relate empathy to, practicing empathy turns out to be a crucial element in nearly every industry. From product design, marketing, leadership to nearly all human-based disciplines. Especially when the work is in the front-line of a business as is the case in UX design. For a UX designer, understanding and implementing empathy is in the main core of the design process. But before we go any deeper, we need define what the word empathy means in the first place.

What exactly is empathy?

According to Psychology Today Empathy is the experience of understanding another person's thoughts, feelings, and condition. And operating from their point of view, rather than from your own.

When empathy is ignored in UX design, UX designers tend to think that their users will approach the website, product or the App they're building the same way they themselves approach it. This can cause the UX designer to unintentionally ignoring the users' needs and expectations and how will they interact with the designed product/website. To give you a more vivid example of what we're talking about here, think of an 18 year-old designing a mobile app that serves 80+ year old people, with the assumption that they are as familiar and as tech-savvy as she is.

If you want to integrate empathy in your website's user experience in a practical way, the following tips will help you.

3 Principles for an empathetic user experience

Get clear on the behavior you're after

Before starting to work, you need to get clear on what behavior/action you want from your users. Is it to feel comfortable and spend more time surfing your website? is it signing up for your mailing list? or do you want them to head straight to the shopping section? Clearly pin-pointing the targeted behavior/action will help you make better design choices throughout the design process.

For example, the design for a website that aims to make the users surf as long as possible is very different from a design that prompts their users to actually make a purchase (not just surfing).

Know what matters the most for your users

It might be the color palette of the landing page is what matters the most to you. But reality says that it doesn't matter what matters the most to you as a designer if you're not the primary end user. The needs, wants and expectations of the people who will actually use the website should be your ultimate priority. Because they are the ones who you're designing the website for at the end of the day. This is where empathy comes in.

Now you need to know what matters the most to them in your design. It can be usability, to do an action on the website in shortest possible time or it can be their priority to navigate your website in an easy and intuitive way.

But in order to empathize the right way, you shouldn't base the design on what you think the users want either. Untested assumptions can cause you a lot of trouble. You need to get down to earth and find out what they really think, feel and want regarding the kind of designs you're working on.

It can be done through interviewing them, past behavior from the data on your website (Google Analytics is great in this) or any other way that can give you a better insights of what your users care about. One of the ways that were highlighted on the Empathy and product design article on was the Empathy Map. It's a 4 quadrants that help you ask the right questions to empathize with your users in a better way.


We're not saying you should disregard your opinion as a designer. Of course not. If you care about colors that much, you can surely put it as a priority in your design. But it shouldn't get the biggest chunk of your effort and time if it's not the highest priority for your primary end user (unless you're targeting designers who have interests similar to yours, of course).

Test your work

That's when you really know your users. After finishing your design, show them to a sample of your users and give them the opportunity to interact with them. Observe their actual behavior and get feedback from them. What grabbed their attention first? what's the first action they took? after testing the design with a number of users, you will get a better idea of their behavior and expectations. You can also use the previous empathetic design principles nearly in every aspect of your business not just UX design.

Now go through your website and see if these principles are applied in it. See if it's actually built around what your users wants, needs and behavior. If you found that it's not built with your audience in mind, then seriously consider a UX re-do. A bad user experience can cost your business more than you think.

Where else do you think the principles of empathetic design can be used in your company? Share your opinion and join the conversation on Medium, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram

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