UX Design: What’s Empathy Got to Do With It?

By Ivan Nunez

February 27, 2018

As a designer focused on user experience (UX), I often find myself explaining to others what I do.

Most people understand UX design within the confines of technology. They’re aware (often as the result of bad user experiences) that some amount of thought is required to enable good intuitive interactions with websites, digital interfaces and devices.

But when I mention the importance of “gathering empathy,” “understanding motivations,” “engendering trust,” and “encouraging transformation,” it usually creates more questions than it answers.

‘How Is Empathy Used to Design Software, Products and Services?’

Despite having fluid emotional lives that blend and overlap experiences of joy, sadness, fear and anger (to name a few) we’re culturally predisposed to define and quantify things.

Maybe it’s because our lives fluctuate between emotional ups and downs that we value precision so much. Regardless of the reason, we often bring this preference for quantifiable precision to our work lives.

When facing business challenges or opportunities, companies routinely conduct research and base strategic decisions on numerical data analytics such as market trends, number of impressions, call response times, etc. This data offers valuable insights, yet it fails to answer how people feel and what they expect from interactions with a business.

When organizations base their branding, marketing and operational strategies exclusively in numbers and surveys, they don’t fully understand the people they serve, which makes it difficult to succeed.

The same is true for UX design.

The Story Behind the Numbers

We recently studied the treatment of a specific illness for a healthcare client.

We were provided with quantitative data about time of diagnosis, access to specialized centers for treatment and adherence to medications. But what we really wanted to understand was the patients’ experiences and expectations with the disease in order to suggest better pathways of care. The numbers couldn’t tell us that.

We conducted qualitative research based on empathetic interviews to understand the range of emotions, motivations and behaviors that helped patients seek a diagnosis, follow a treatment plan and find personal support.

The in-depth patient interviews helped us uncover important characteristics of the patient experience, such as attitude towards treatment, sense of control, level of self-advocacy and access to support groups. Based on what we learned, we identified and described the range of patient personas. Then for each persona, we created a journey map to help visualize and understand the patients’ experiences through key points of their illness.

The journey maps allowed us to identify points of success in patient care, as well as points of need.

The Client’s New Perspective

The combination of personas and journey maps became living documents in our work with the healthcare company, and they were remarkable tools for engendering insight and collaboration.

Perhaps most importantly, the documents helped the healthcare client view patients as more than just data points. We brought them to life as individuals with unique stories, needs and dispositions toward their own treatment. This fundamentally changed the nature of the work, and ultimately changed the way the client is beginning to think about behavior change and improving care-delivery.

Personalized understanding of the range of patient journeys clearly awakened the spirit of innovation in our client’s design team. They were quick to discover opportunities the quantitative data alone didn’t expose, and their motivation remained as they diligently worked through iterations of patient engagement strategies and solutions with us.

Bringing Data and Experience Together

The work we performed for the healthcare client—in fact most of our work—is rooted in the alignment of human experiences and quantitative data.

Human-centered design processes help us find the levers that affect the numbers. They help us identify and address the emotions and obstacles that stand in the way of behavior change.

Combining an empathetic approach to consumer research with detailed data analytics gives designers the insights to create meaningful solutions that extend beyond the confines of interactive technology. User experience design has a role in mapping strategies for branding, marketing, advertising, service delivery and operations, customer support, product development, and innovation.

Businesses and organizations are able to make better strategic decisions when they understand the people and the motivations behind the quantitative data. Better yet, these organizations have the opportunity to build meaningful relationships with the people they serve.

Want to learn more about design for innovation or biomimicry?

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