As UX practitioners, we must advocate on behalf of our users, and to do that, we must first understand them. This means developing empathy for the people who are experiencing our products or services.

A common issue in attempting to practice empathy is mistakenly practicing sympathy. Despite sometimes incorrectly being used interchangeably, these two words have different meanings. A consequence of misusing the terms is a large gap in our understanding of users’ needs and in our inability to address those needs.

This article will look at the differences between sympathy and empathy as they relate to UX design so you can better reflect on your current practice and make changes if needed.

Sympathy

By definition, sympathy simply means acknowledging others’ suffering. It is the reaction we have to someone else’s hardship or misfortunes, to the pain they are experiencing. As opposed to empathy, however, there is still a certain distance between you and that person, in that you do not personally relate to their experience or it is not something you expect to share. You recognize that someone is having problems, but you do not see yourself having those same problems so you are not that moved by their situation.

Sympathy in UX is limited to simply acknowledging that your users are facing difficulties in using product or service. Being sympathetic to users does not mean putting ourselves in their shoes and feeling their pain. For example, if we are designing a website for people with visual impairments, and thus accessibility is key, we may express sympathy by simply acknowledging the potential challenges they may have browsing our website:

  • text too small and hard to read
  • difficult navigation with a screen reader
  • images too small
  • and many more

In having sympathy for users, the goal is not to simply be nice to them, but to empower them. This is why, for example, lengthy error messages about how sorry we are for something not working are discouraged in favor of error messages that actually help users overcome the issue and move on with their intended journey by displaying meaningful and actionable information.

Examples of sympathetic design include:

  • documentation
  • FAQs
  • surveys
  • help pop-ups

These ensure that the people using your product or service can successfully accomplish their tasks.

Empathy

Empathy goes beyond sympathy and is a bit more complex. It is defined as the ability to understand and fully relate with someone else’s needs and motivations.

In UX design, empathy is a way to not only understand users’ frustrations, but also their fears, hopes, limitations, and goals. It empowers us to create solutions that not only address a user’s pain point, but also improve their lives by preventing unnecessary friction. Using the same example with the accessible website, practicing empathy means actually using a screen reader, without the use of your sight, to accomplish a task on that website.

Having empathy is the first step toward compassionate action. Nurses, doctors, teachers, they all need to have empathy, and designers need it too. When you empathize with the people you are designing a product for, you have a better understanding of their experience with your product. As designers, having empathy for your users may even be more difficult, because you have to empathize with a potentially huge number of people that you will likely never meet or directly communicate with.

There are many tools one can use to cultivate the empathy required of us as designers to ensure that we design great experiences and have compassion for our users.

  • personas are used to remind designers about the people they are designing for
  • storytelling allows designers to role play an experience and get a greater understanding about users’ needs
  • dogfooding refers to using your own product or service and gives you the opportunity to experience everything first-hand, but bear in mind that your experience and perspective are different from many others

Empaths are typically good communicators because they have the ability to understand that different people have different perspectives. They do not dismiss different points of view, they respect them, and they can adapt their style of communication to the situation at hand.

Examples of empathetic design include:

  • pre-populated form fields
  • user journeys
  • user research – listening and observing your users
  • using the same language as your users

The empathy spectrum

There is no clear line that marks the transition from sympathy to empathy, but the relation between the two is rather best represented on a spectrum:

  • pity – “I’m sorry for you.” (the most disconnected version of sympathy) – pity usually suggests a kind, but sometimes condescending type of sorrow brought on by others’ hardships. It typically tends to have a somewhat negative connotation where an individual is thought less of.
  • sympathy – “I feel for you.” – sympathy is often used to express understanding or sorrow for someone experiencing hardship. While you feel bad for them, you do not necessarily know what it’s like to be in their shoes.
  • empathy – “I feel with you.” – empathy refers to our ability to place ourselves in someone else’s situation and experience their thoughts and emotions, perhaps by conjuring up a similar experience that we have been through ourselves.
  • compassion – “I am moved by you.” – compassion refers to our acknowledgement of someone else’s hardship, our feelings of care toward that person, and even an active desire to help them escape their situation and feel better.

While pity and sympathy require almost no effort or understanding, empathy and compassion require understanding and engagement to actually produce a change in someone else’s experience.

Pity simply means feeling sorry for someone and not much more. You do not like the situation they are in and you may even do something to help them, but it is mostly to drown your own unpleasant feelings by knowing that you helped – or simply attempted to, whether you actually do or not is not important.

On the other end is compassion, which is what you feel when you relate the most to your users as people instead of objects. You understand that they have their own wants, needs, and purposes, acting to accomplish a goal that they want to accomplish. As such, our priorities or preferences are not imposed upon them. Compassion is a consequence of empathy; it is when the understanding of someone else’s thoughts and feelings gives us the desire and drive to help improve their situation.

Intention

Each concept mentioned above has to do with degrees of caring, engagement, as well as the intention behind it.

Pity is the most detached of the bunch and it usually carries the sense that while the suffering is acknowledged, it is looked down upon.

Sympathy has a different level of intent, where you genuinely care to hear about the other’s struggles, and you feel sorry for their pain.

Empathy goes a bit further in that you engage more with the other person and through your own emotions you can imagine and even feel their pain.

Compassion, which is the most engaged on the spectrum, builds upon the previous emotions by genuinely wanting to help the other and to curb their suffering.

It is important to remember that empathy does not necessarily have to be associated with negative things. You can also express empathy toward someone’s happiness and share it with them.

Practicing empathy in UX

Now that we have established what empathy is, let’s go ahead and take a look at how you can practice empathy in UX design:

  • using qualitative methods of research

The first step to practicing empathy in user experience is user research. You must set aside any assumptions you may have and focus on qualitative research methods, such as:

  1. interviews
  2. cognitive mapping
  3. diary studies

These methods allow you to further dig into user behaviors and better understand their motivations and concerns.

When conducting interviews, a good rule of thumb is to use open-ended questions. When users are explaining things to you, they will often reveal surprising mental models and problem-solving strategies. Examples of open-ended questions include:

  1. “What makes you happy?” vs “Are you happy?”
  2. “What would make you stronger?” vs “What are your weaknesses?”
  3. “What is your relationship with your family?” vs “Are you close with your family?”

Practice empathy as you conduct your research and remember that you do not know what people are going through at that very moment and what might trigger memories for them or be difficult questions.

  • recruiting diverse users

Accessibility should be part of your research plan. This will allow you to test assumptions and explore possible improvement opportunities with actual people. You can recruit users with disabilities by reaching out to local training centers, state chapters, or well-known organizations.

  • inviting your team to watch research sessions

As you are conducting your research, invite your team members and stakeholders to observe your sessions. This will increase empathy among your colleagues and acceptance for your findings, as it is one thing to read them and another to see users live.

Before inviting them to observe the tests, evangelizing UX research may be required. Everyone needs to know how deep UX design needs to go and what can be accomplished: saving users time and solving real issues.

If some of your peers are not able to observe the tests live, record your sessions and post them somewhere where they can be accessed and watched by anyone relevant to the process on their own time.

  • show videos of users when presenting your findings to stakeholders

When making a case to stakeholders, make sure to complement your findings and recommendations with videos of users performing tasks. This will make your findings more compelling and ensure that you are building general empathy toward your users. For the most impact, show them videos of people with a variety of backgrounds, demographics, and abilities.

  • creating an empathy map

Empathy maps are used to capture a user’s emotions and house your knowledge on them in one place. They are useful for discovering gaps in your knowledge of the user and identifying the research needed to address it.

Empathy maps are also great for helping others to become more empathetic toward users since it acts as a source of truth, protecting the project from bias. Empathy is a complex skill, and these maps reduce misalignment between team members and stakeholders because they have the same visual baseline.

  • putting together a diverse team

It is normal for us to think that others think and act in the same way we do, but that is not the case. If everyone on your team is male and below 30 years old, with a background in tech, you will implicitly end up with a design that favors that particular group.

For best results, it is always a good idea to recruit members with various backgrounds and demographics. Empathy for your users will not be guaranteed, but it will definitely be a step in the right direction.

  • embed empathy in your design guidelines

Create protocols within your team that encourage empathy. For example, use consistent intention and prioritization behind every question instead of asking your user all possible questions.

If you have been with your team long enough to know them better, you likely have a good idea of what assumptions they tend to make. Create specific guidelines which act as check points against their bad habits, particularly relating to empathy.

Final thoughts

Empathy is essential to user experience design. It is a bridge between us and the users’ minds, and also our most valuable asset as UX practitioners. With empathy, we can design with intent, advocate on our users’ behalf, challenge our assumptions, and introduce focus and clarity.

Remember that developing empathy takes practice, and it will take a lot of work to more accurately identify users’ pain points and feel what they feel. Once you start developing your empathy skills and have a better understanding of what others are feeling at a given moment, you can start looking at ways to help, heal, or alleviate suffering through compassion.