The term “empathy,” the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, has gone mainstream, largely due to its relevance in creating personalized user experiences for technology interfaces. If a digital marketer can understand the customer deeply, they can (in theory), create engaging, personalized, timely, and immersive experiences that lead the customer to execute a transaction.
Knowing this, why don’t organizations spend more time and money on ethnographic, demographic, anthropologic, or socio-cultural studies before they design their interfaces? The main reason is the cost involved, since few technology teams have such expertise.
The good news is it’s neither expensive nor difficult to create an awareness of empathy and of the benefits of design thinking within technology teams. It is quite simple for the lead architect/technologist (or a small team) to sit with the user and observe them in their natural habitat, rather than having a user-experience expert meet the users and interpret their needs.
User experience experts are required on the team to create artifacts that document user needs, but one doesn’t need a masters degree in human anthropology to create impactful designs. The objective for the digital team is to observe and note the users’ reactions as they move through their everyday activities. From this, they can define contexts and build a first-hand understanding of the primary, secondary, and tertiary needs of the user communities.
User interactions typically take place face to face and can involve role play by the technology and UX team. For example, someone might wear fuzzy lenses to mimic the behavior of an elderly patient with poor eyesight while designing a mobile app for a healthcare payer. Similarly, someone might wear heavy gloves to simulate the typical hand movements of a warehouse supervisor while designing a workflow approval tablet app.
These empathetic simulations and interactions with select user groups result in journey maps that inform more suitable design choices for the interfaces. The alternative—simply working from functional requirements documents—leaves out critical emotional and contextual information, severely shortchanging design outcomes.
Digital teams should be careful, though, to not confuse empathy with sympathy or blind compassion for the user. The focus must always be on technology enablement for the user’s basic task needs, which are based on clear business objectives and are measureable. The objective is not to wrestle with other contextual problems in the enterprise that the user may be facing, which may be process, organizational, or business related, or even personal.
Ultimately, empathy is about understanding customer or user needs functionally as well as emotionally. Without empathy, it is not possible to build technology interfaces that help the customer emotionally engage with the brand while intuitively accessing functions and data. Only when user needs are met can fast adoption and high ROI be achieved.