What does it mean to "design?"
Depending on who you ask, some would say that designing is nothing more than creating beautiful things and compelling experiences. However, when you look at some of the most brilliant designers of our time, their best work dives deeper into how to help people overcome the challenges they face. To create groundbreaking innovations, the best designers get into the mind of the user and become empathic to their needs and how to help them perform activities with better ease and efficiency. To be empathetic is to be a successful designer.
So, what does empathy mean, and how can we be empathetic in our work as designers and as partners in a product team? In this article, we are going to learn about what it means to be truly empathetic, how we can practice empathy in our work as user advocates as well as partners in a cross-functional product team, and how empathy can build a bridge between product vision and business outcomes.
Empathy is all about making meaningful connections. As renowned researcher Dr. Brene Brown defines it, empathy is “feeling with people.” In order to connect with others, we must connect with something deep within ourselves that understands that feeling as well.
Dr. Theresa Wiseman, a nursing scholar expands on that, suggesting that empathy has four main qualities: perspective taking, staying out of judgment, recognizing emotion in other people, and communicating back the emotion that you see.
All of this suggests that we produce more meaningful and impactful outcomes by fostering meaningful connections (i.e., having empathy) with our users, our product team, and our stakeholders, or as Dr. Brown puts it, "...what makes something better is connection."
Empathy with Users
Many UX designers are already utilizing empathy with their users in their projects, showing how pivotal being empathetic truly is. By conducting research and triangulating between quantitative and qualitative studies, designers are working to see the user’s perspective and better understanding how they see the world. Designers foster a connection with users by learning about who they are, what challenges they are facing, and what kind of support they need in order to overcome these challenges.
By learning about their mindset and mental models and finding something within the archives of our own mindsets and mental models, designers create a product that empowers and supports the user as they navigate through the challenges they face.
Empathy with the Team
Empathizing with our design partners is paramount to the successful development of our designs. We practice empathy by seeing the product vision through their lens and by understanding the challenges they face in developing our product.
Empathy with PM/PO
A PM/PO is responsible and accountable for ensuring the viability of our product along with coordinating cross-functional teams in order to deliver a successful product - that is a lot to juggle for one role. It takes a dedicated person to coordinate and empower individuals to drive the direction of a product while also advocating for them against the pressure coming from executive leadership.
When we find ourselves in conflict with a PM/PO, remember to see the problem from their perspective. Designers and PM/PO are not adversaries. We are partners and therefore we must work through our issues together by being clear with our intentions and by collaborating on a way forward.
Empathy with Engineers
Unless you're working with engineers who happen to be wizards, our designs do not magically come to life. Engineers are responsible and accountable for the feasibility of our product vision along with how to implement our designs. They work hard to ensure that what they build stays true to the vision and intentions of the designers. While designers shouldn’t be expected to write code, learning and understanding fundamental concepts in software engineering (i.e., having a basic understanding of what it takes to implement our design) can be helpful to better understand and collaborate with engineers.
Engineers are our allies and partners in design. By involving them throughout the design process and opening the floor to their ideas and insights, engineers can provide a fresh perspective on a problem and could therefore provide new angles or approaches to solving it. The most innovative solutions come from the collaboration of diverse minds.
Empathy for Stakeholders
From the executive leadership, investors, customers, and more, stakeholders have a vested interest in the success of the product. Therefore, when kicking off a project, it is good practice to interview stakeholders in order to clearly define the goal, purpose, impact, and success metrics of a feature or product.
By learning and understanding what's valuable to them, we can clearly identify and prioritize outputs that would provide the most meaningful outcomes to the business.
Empathy builds trust, and trust encourages collaboration. Innovation is encouraged when we empathize, respect, and trust one another. The impact of empathy is astronomical. Empathy is key to innovative design; but it is also key to the success of the product, the business, and the organizations our products support.
Design with empathy. Interact with empathy. Lead with empathy.