The Human Touch: How Empathy in UX Enhances CX

The importance of UX within the context of CX when customers engage with your products and services.

Photo: JP Holecka
Published by Sarah Bain on 10.09.2019

Although the design process is certainly creative, some people find it surprising how scientific it can be. We collect data, we develop prototypes, we iterate and refine based on a series of experiment-like tests. But what makes that process truly effective is the human behind the data, and a design team’s ability to get inside the minds of their target user. And the word for that part of the process? Empathy.

To someone unfamiliar with UX, the concept of empathy can seem soft, fluffy, extraneous — the sort of thing that’s difficult to quantify with hard data, whether in research results or budget spreadsheets. However, it’s a pillar of any strong design, and trying to help people understand this can sometimes be an uphill battle for UX professionals.

So if you’ve ever considered “empathy” to be too soft for the design process, let’s set the record straight.

First, empathy is not fluff. It’s a rigorous part of user research and testing that enables designers to put aside their assumptions, experiences and expertise, and really listen to what people are thinking and feeling as they engage with a product. Through empathy, we can see the process through the user’s eyes and hear about it through their words.

Even if business leaders balk at “empathy”, it’s likely they agree that successful product design necessitates direct feedback from users. Surveys have always been a favourite tool for this. They’re efficient, widely distributable, and easily quantifiable. But in my experience, they don’t probe deep enough. One of the best things we can do from a design perspective is be curious and talk to people; if there’s an interesting or unexpected insight in our survey results, we need to have the freedom and flexibility to delve into it. Interviews are fantastic tools in this regard, as they allow designers to understand all the factors impacting user experience — both within the product, and externally in the broader context of the customer experience.

This is where empathy comes into play. UX designers can use the product themselves to experience the frustrations people are feeling. But they can take this further by engaging with users to hear firsthand what’s working for them, what’s not, and what they would like to see changed.

Empathy - UX

For example, let’s say you’re looking at the data analytics for a specific solution. You see that people are dropping off at a certain point, or that they’re not using a particular tool. You can see the what, when, and where.

But what about the why?

Personally, my preferred UX research process goes something like this:

  • I start with general user data collection to get a good overview of the landscape, studying statistics and trends that are already well-documented. These secondary sources inform my hypotheses around how people will receive a product, and help me create questions for primary research.
  • If the product already exists, either as a prototype or as a live offering, I study the data analytics to see where people are dropping off within it. This also helps me shape my research approach and survey questions. Launching my survey allows me to gather a breadth of insights.
  • But breadth is not enough; I like to go in-depth as well. I job shadow individuals who rely on the product for their work, interview users, and get volunteers to talk me through their experiences and expectations of the product as they test it in real time.

Quantitative methodologies are great. They give us the data we need to build a business case, demonstrate ROI, and measure ongoing success. But the qualitative component to understand the why is the differentiator that makes the product the best it can possibly be.

Case in point: A client of mine had created a suite of tools that other businesses could license. However, it proved unprofitable because most users were downloading and deploying the tools illegally. The client’s assumption was that people were simply avoiding paying the money.

But after receiving thousands of survey responses and conducting a series of interviews, I discovered that a lack of information upfront, combined with a counterintuitive interface, resulted in users feeling both frustrated and uninformed. They found a workaround in illegal downloading not because they had bad intentions, but because they didn’t know what else to do.

The solution was much simpler than the client expected. I added an educational component to the product, so people understood exactly how it worked as soon as they started using it. I also built in a cost estimator tool, which meant they could calculate the price of licensing it based on the information they input. This resulted in a dramatic reduction in illegal downloads, and a surge in profitability. With new revenue driving increased success, perhaps it’s no surprise that the company was acquired soon after, which had been their primary business objective all along.

Empathy is not only a central part of the UX process, it’s critical to customer experience as well. CX describes and manages a user’s entire end-to-end interaction with a brand; UX takes place within that context every time people engage with individual products and services.

As UX designers, it’s important that we see ourselves as CX designers as well, and bring our human-centric research methodologies and empathetic lenses to every customer touchpoint. After all, if people don’t have a meaningful, intuitive experience of the brand overall, they likely won’t discover the excellent solutions on offer.

Successful companies understand this. They know that by empathizing with their target consumers, they can do a better job of reaching and retaining them. The biggest brands are deploying UX approaches supported by empathy to build their “tribes” — communities of users who loyally believe in their products and services and actively champion them.

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One last point: empathy enables us to think through much more than product design, and it allows us to see more perspectives than just the end users’. UX designers employ it at every stage of a project to establish trust and mutual understanding with stakeholders. Here are three reasons why I think empathy is so integral to design thinking:

  • It helps us align with the brands and clients we work with. Through empathy, we know exactly what they want, and how to help them achieve it.
  • As third-party collaborators, it’s also important for us to connect with employees who will be using or supporting the product internally, to ensure that their perspectives are taken into account.
  • And of course, we have to hone a deep understanding of the broader customer base who will be using the product when it launches.

When we build relationships with all our stakeholders based on empathy and trust, it both enriches and expedites the research process. Being attuned to the pain points users encounter lets us spot patterns and uncover opportunities for better design; and by being cognizant of our clients’ business objectives, we know how to leverage those opportunities to improve the product and truly differentiate the brand.

So the next time someone tells you that empathy is unimportant, unquantifiable, or lacks ROI in a business context, remind them that it’s probably the driving force behind the design of all their favourite apps.

Empathy is just the first step when it comes to designing award-winning products, services, and experiences. To further explore our best practices, check out our other stories here.