How to Gain Empathy for Your Users

By Denny Royal

April 9, 2018

This article is the second in a series that began with “ Is Human-Centered Design Right for Your Organization?

When shifting to a human-centered design methodology, the first hurdle many organizations deal with is how to go about gaining empathy for the people they’re designing for. They often jump to focus groups or voice-of-customer surveys.

But those are more like empathy theater than the real thing.

In human-centered design, we conduct research that’s more ethnographic, using observations and face-to-face interviews in the relevant environmental and situational contexts.

This article will share some ideas on how to best put yourself—as researchers—in context with your subjects to truly gain understanding and empathy for their needs.

Design Research vs. Market Research

Let’s start by defining the difference between design research and market research.

Market research tries to predict the behavior of a large group of the population. For example, will people buy a particular flavor of potato chip. Design research, on the other hand, seeks inspiration for solutions that meet people’s needs. (Here at Azul Seven, we focus on design research.)

Design research is centered in empathy. It puts real people with real needs at the center of the design process—not the product.

However, for those in the innovation space, empathy can increase your chances of success with a new product or service. According to this Fortune article, 90% of startups fail. Of those, 42% fail because of a “lack of market need.” In other words, they tried to build products or services based on ideas, rather than actual, proven needs.

Empathy vs. Compassion

Another hang-up for some teams that are new to human-centered design is the difference between empathy and compassion.

Compassion is a deep feeling of sympathy, combined with a desire to fix the problem or issue. Empathy is about experiencing and understanding the feelings, thoughts, attitudes and situation of another person.

As a design or product team, having compassion for your user is great, but it isn’t as useful as empathy. You can have compassion for a person without understanding what they want or need. But to truly gain empathy—to develop a deep, respectful understanding of a person’s experiences—you have to walk in his or her shoes and share his or her perspective.

I think it’s useful to keep the mindset that the subject (the “user,” in design language) is the expert on his or her needs, not the designer.

Context Is Everything

One of the first questions that comes up when we talk with prospective clients about ethnographic interviews is, “Can we do it on the phone?” Short answer: No.

A successful ethnographic interview is about so much more than just the questions and answers.

The questions we ask in an interview tend to be centered around the “why’ of a situation. But understanding the “what” and the “how” is just as important. While interview subjects are usually pretty good at explaining the intellectual questions about why they do something, they are not so good at explaining (out of context) how they do it, or even what it is they’re doing. That’s why it’s so much better to simply watch what they do, and how.

Through observation, it’s often simple to identify the friction points holding a person back, or the processes and workarounds they’ve developed to accomplish goals. With these kinds of insights, we can identify unmet needs the user may not even consciously be aware of, let alone be able to explain over the phone.

Also, an experienced interviewer will want to be able to watch a subject’s body language and expressions. These help us understand a person’s emotions about a situation, even though he or she may not want to open up about them to a stranger. These clues help the research team know when and where to probe a bit deeper for information that could be very valuable.

Asking the Right Questions

Asking the right questions, in the right way, is key to successful research.

For example, binary or hypothetical questions are usually no good. Binary questions lead nowhere and don’t help the researcher uncover the user’s unique story or paradigm. Hypothetical questions engage the subject’s imagination and by their very nature don’t reflect a true account of the user’s context or needs.

Open-ended questions are the way to go. These types of questions elicit much better responses, allowing people to tell their stories and give their perspectives more freely. For example, Tell me about the last time you visited your doctor? reveals much more than, Did you have a good experience the last time you went to your doctor?

It’s also important to be careful not to inadvertently lead interview subjects to certain answers. Often when we’re teaching design-thinking research, we see inexperienced interviewers wanting to share their relevant stories and insights with the people they’re interviewing. That’s a big no-no, because it can completely skew the interactions going forward. Yes, you need to establish rapport, but choose your friendly conversation topics wisely.

Along similar lines, keep in mind that we’re only researching at this point in the process. We’re not there to provide suggestions. This can be difficult for helpful people, who enjoy solving problems. Remaining neutral and objective often involves checking yourself on what would usually be a normal reaction in a conversation. But the more you do this kind of research, the more comfortable it becomes to stay in the inquisitive mindset.

Your Research Posture

Creating a comfortable atmosphere for a research interview is key.

Here’s a pro tip: Don’t bring a computer or a tablet. This is the time for a good old analog notebook and pen. Even though most interviewees are comfortable around computers, they still tend to create interpersonal barriers. We want to be as approachable as possible.

Besides, we often end up observing and interviewing in places that aren’t feasible for typing anyway. We do, however, use mini voice recorders or recording apps on our phones so we can reference or transcribe conversations later. But you must have express consent from the participant before recording.

Another of our standard research procedures is to interview in pairs. One researcher typically asks the questions while the other is a dedicated note taker. But it’s OK to switch roles in the middle of an interview. The notetaker may want to ask a few probing questions about something he or she hears or observes. At that point, the other researcher begins taking notes on his or her pad. They can naturally switch roles again once the line of questioning runs its course.

The note-taking role is crucial, because we want to capture everything for sharing and analysis after the interview concludes. For this reason, our two-person research teams debrief with one another at the end of each day to compare notes and annotate anything they feel they may have missed.

The debriefing session is also a good time to make sure you’re happy with the question set you took into the interview and make minor adjustments, if needed.

The Importance of Emotional Connection

After initial research, the next step in human centered design is often creating user personas or a point-of-view statement. These “artifacts” are useful, but the user stories and the journey of capturing and sharing them with the team is just as important.

The stories that accumulate around a project help team members develop meaningful connections to the people for whom they’re trying to design solutions. This will lead to better results in the end.

Lastly, it’s important to note that empathy shouldn’t be reserved just for interview subjects. We try to extend it to our teammates and clients as well.

By understanding the viewpoints and experiences of the people with whom we work, we can help projects flow more smoothly. And depending on the subject matter, human centered design can sometimes be difficult and draining, so taking care of one another is necessary well-being of the team.

To learn more about human-centered design and conducting research, please contact Azul Seven.

Want to learn more about design for innovation or biomimicry?

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