The role of empathy in user research

User Experience & Usability

Woman opening curtains and looking out.

What is empathy?

Empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person” and underpins both our user experience and accessibility work here at System Concepts. As the first step in the design thinking process, empathising with users is essential to ensure that product and service design is driven by real user insights, rather than assumptions or hypotheses.

Often, people believe that you can only feel empathy if you have been through an identical experience to someone else. Wrong! Although it can build on similar circumstances, empathy can also arise when there is a clear window into another person’s life, which can be achieved by building an understanding of their experience or situation.

We generally experience empathy at two levels.

  • Cognitive empathy: When we can recognise another person’s cognitive experience, for example what they are thinking and feeling. As researchers, we often employ this when conducting interviews or observations in order to build our own cognitive model of how a user experiences something in the world. As we observe or listen to somebody’s experience, we can imagine what it is like to be them. This is often based partly on our own knowledge and experience.
  • Emotional empathy: When we can begin to feel somebody else’s emotions, for example feeling sadness or joy on behalf of another person. This powerful way that humans can share others’ emotions begins in early childhood, and can also play a part in user research when we wish to understand and respond to the emotional needs of users.

Both of these empathy levels can be built upon to practice compassionate empathy: when we understand and share someone’s feelings and then take action to help.

Our ability to empathise is shaped by both genetic and environmental factors, but it’s also a skill that can be practiced and improved.

Infographic of Empathy
Using empathy in research

At System Concepts, empathy comes into play at various points of our work with clients. Here, we discuss a few of the ways we use empathy in our user research projects.

1.      Laying the foundations for user research

Every piece of research starts with building an understanding of what is already known, such as the types of people who may use a product and the nature of the product itself. This is why we will often do a research amnesty, asking our clients what they already know about their users, so that we can begin to understand them too. We also become familiar with the product or service that may be being tested, to ensure that we know the various ways a task can be completed, as well as any specifics that participants may talk about. This prior knowledge allows our consultants to understand what happens in research sessions, allowing for better facilitation, and reducing the time required for analysis afterwards.

Sometimes it takes experiencing a service for ourselves to begin to understand it from a user’s point of view. A service safari is a structured exercise that enables us to do just that. By adopting different personas (e.g. an elderly user who wants to avoid steps) and using or visiting a service with a goal in mind, we can get closer to understanding the customer journey. This works well within a physical environment such as a museum. The great thing about it is that the whole team can get involved, allowing the quick identification of high and low points in a service, whilst building emotional empathy for the user with several stakeholders.

2.      Choosing the right methodology

When a client approaches us with a brief, we listen to their needs and take time to consider what approach will best meet their objectives. Most of our research at System Concepts is qualitative rather than quantitative, because it helps us to understand not just what a user says or does, but also why. This kind of research supports empathy since it typically involves interacting with participants directly and either hearing about or observing their experiences. Here are a couple of ways we do that.

Young woman sitting on the floor and writting notes

  • We often use diary studies as a starting point for research to determine how a product fits into users lives over time. This methodology involves participants keeping a ‘diary’ or record of their behaviours and interactions over time, which researchers can analyse to understand naturalistic insights. Empathy is generated as we indirectly get to know the user and their lifestyle, and understand the factors that influence their interaction with a product. Conducting a follow-up interview, as we frequently do, allows for further exploration of their motivations and experiences.
  • Contextual interviews involve conducting research in the user’s own environment. Over the last year, we have conducted interviews with participants in their homes, gyms, schools and even in restaurants! Contextual research can help to build emotional empathy as, in our experience, participants feel more comfortable opening up about personal matters in their own environment than when they’re in our lab. Researchers can also see for themselves how the environment impacts the user’s experience, to better understand the user’s natural behaviour as well as key pain points in a journey. These can then be highlighted back to the client through photos, videos and visual reporting.

3.      Building an accurate interpretation of another person’s experience

When conducting research with participants, we need to look beyond our own judgements and listen intently to the point of view being expressed. This allows us to build up an accurate picture of that person’s cognitive and emotional experience. We also pay attention to non-verbal cues, such as body language, to determine how each participant is feeling, and whether it matches what they are telling us. If we notice any actions that we believe have a deeper meaning, then we will probe participants to open up their thoughts to us, rather than making assumptions (e.g. “I thought I saw you frown when you landed on this page, why was that?”). Asking similar questions more than once can also uncover additional insights, as the user becomes more comfortable and is immersed in the experience.

4.      Considering users with impairments

Our work often requires us to consider the experiences of people with accessibility needs. These perspectives can be difficult to understand without having direct experience. When conducting expert accessibility audits (e.g. to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)), we explore digital products from the point of view of users with access needs by using the same assistive technologies and techniques that they typically use. This includes using screen readers, navigating using only the keyboard and enlarging fonts to get closer to the experience of impaired users. As well as helping to identify issues, this builds empathy by generating feelings similar to what may be felt by users and helping us understand the impact each problem has. We also ensure that we report back to our clients in plain English, whilst humanising issues and recommendations in order to evoke compassionate empathy during product development. While auditing to accessibility guidelines can be a good starting point, there is always more to be learned by involving real users with accessibility needs in the user-centred design process, to ensure their needs are met and that they can achieve the same goals as users without accessibility needs.

5.      Spreading empathy using artefacts

Empathy mapping;Note pad with map and pen.

It’s important that the empathy we build for users during research sessions does not get lost when developing our observations into insights and delivering them to our clients. We regularly use video clips from our research sessions to support our findings and help stakeholders who weren’t able to observe the research themselves to understand a participant’s perspective. We also use empathy maps, personas and customer journey maps to represent and bring to life the experience of real users, allowing them to be easily considered during the design process and adapted over time. Whereas personas provide context around the lifestyle of users, customer journey maps and empathy maps tell a story around the actions, thoughts and feelings associated with a specific experience. These allow others to connect to users and place them at the centre of future decision-making. We like to involve as many stakeholders as possible in the creation of these artefacts, as it allows everyone to align on and buy into a single source of truth, whilst building empathy in the process.

Young man in standing in park stretches his hand, focus is on hand, close up.

Speech bubbleIf you would like to better integrate empathy into your design process, please contact us for a chat about how we can help!




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