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The Empathy Problem

If there is one thing that has become apparent over the years working in technology is that people in our field love buzzwords. So much so that we often start using words in ways that do not mean what they actually mean. I’m not going to get into a philosophy of language debate here, but when we obfuscate meaning it gets in the way of our ability to communicate effectively.

The word I am thinking about, as you can tell from the title, is “empathy.” If I search my RSS feeds I can find no shortage of its usage. Recently, from what I’ve seen, Mark Steinruck of Viget applies it to client presentations. Even well known UX consultants can fall prey to misuse. Louis Rosenfeld uses the word as a synonym for “understanding.” Many UX professionals use the word to sell the idea of user research in order to create “user understanding” and a pseudo-altruism.

Surely with all the ways UX consultants use the word, it would be beneficial to actually stop and be clear about what we mean. After all, perspicuity trumps ambiguity every day.

Defining Empathy

Here is Merriam Webster’s definition:

“the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions; the ability to share someone else’s feelings”

You might be saying, “well, what is the big deal?” Well the problem is two-fold. First, think about your ability to share someone else’s feelings: Can you say you’ve ever done that? If you think you have, I hate to break it to you but you have not. That is the first big problem I have with talking about “empathy” in UX—it is a metaphysical impossibility. No one can ever experience the feelings of someone as someone else has because no matter what we do, we are not that person. What most UX people talk about when they say “empathy” is really “compassion,” and I think some UX people just use it as a euphemism for considering users in the design process and nothing more. Empathy is an ideal to strive toward not something to be actually attained.

Secondly, the other major problem I have in using that term in UX is that our current methods are wholly unsuitable for getting anywhere close to the empathy ideal. I’m sorry, but watching a usability test session will give you about as much empathy as watching Bambi. I can certainly watch the video and think about similar experiences and frustrations maybe I have had in the past, but it simply is not the same as the user in question.

Moving Towards the Ideal

I am sure, dear reader, you are asking me about what to do about this situation (unless of course you’re completely apathetic about this or think I am wrong). Like I said, there are simply not many methods to get closer to the empathy ideal. I do think there are two possibilities.

The first is participatory observation, and this is a version of contextual inquiry on steroids. Here we actually become a part of the people group in question instead of observing from the outside (using classic ethnography language). So for example, instead of watching a help desk person answer calls and use a system you strap on the headset and give it a go. This is wholly different than simply watching and asking questions. This is a really great methodology, but it has not been used extensively due to its difficulty, tendency to introduce bias, and potential cost. UX Matters has a great post introducing the methodology.

The second possible answer is what I am referring to as a “reverse” usability test. Here we create tasks and have our team members experience the application in its full glory. This will allow our team members get much closer to this empathy ideal when we are sharing usability tests later on or even watching a usability video. Now instead of watching distant user experiences, we have a foundation in which to relate in the user’s actual context.


Right now I bet you either agree with me completely or think I am in left field. I am interested in hearing how you use this language if you have done so before. What were you trying to communicate in using the word, and how did you do so? I ask you to reflect and see if what you were using were actually methods that can get closer to the empathy ideal, or do we need a new breed of methods to do this?


  1. Carlos Fernandez

    Great article. I do feel like empathy is certainly an ideal but have to ask how much of the UX experience is tied to feelings which are often at the mercy of factors outside of our control and how can we remove that very sporadic variable from our observations and findings.

    Regarding participatory observation I certainly agree that would be a great approach but as someone who often uses the things he writes I have found that my logical approach to something may be singular while a larger group of people may use the system in a rather unique way that I never thought about. So it may certainly bring about some minor tweaks in your original approach in design I still feel it is extremely important to observe the people using the system and then try to find ways of improving the experience.

  2. The misuse of words is something that happens far too often and it drives me to despair. Over dramatic you might argue, but it’s not. The English language while complex is being bastardised by uneducated morons who think that by using ‘big’ words they will seem smart. Those of us out there who bothered to actually learn the meaning of words will no doubt agree that it doesn’t make them look remotely clever.

    • Those are some strong words Laura, but I like them!

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