The three essential types of empathy for designers and developers

Creators must feel empathy.

This is a basic tenet of good design, but lately “empathy” has started to feel like more of a buzzword (sorry, Jeffrey). All buzzwords start with good ideas, though. And empathy is at the heart of what we do as “makers” (another word that makes me cringe, but feels correct here).

I started thinking around this topic after An Event Apart Seattle, where several speakers touched on empathy from different angles. I wanted to add my voice to the conversation, and hopefully put some clarity around what empathy should mean to all of us, no matter our role, in the creation of products and services.

I believe there are three types of empathy, and we haven’t been good at getting all of them right.

1. Empathy for the user

A designer’s primary role is to spend their days thinking about how to make life better for the user of their product (and I’m including customers of service design here, too). We should be experts at stepping into the shoes of different user personas, and empathizing with their concerns. That understanding is what guides our work. This is the area I think we, as designers, are mostly doing well.

Developers are also doing this pretty well, but often approach the problem from a different angle. They want to make sure the user has access to features that work well, and take advantage of the best technologies. They can empathize with users who are frustrated that things don’t work right or can’t accomplish their goals because a product is using obsolete technology.

What we need now is to work more closely together. We must learn more about each other’s crafts, and listen to how our co-creators think. We must have a shared understanding of empathy for the user before we can provide a cohesive solution.

2. Empathy for our bosses and clients

I’ll quote Jeffrey Zeldman, from An Event Apart Seattle: “Your boss will never care about the web for the same reasons you do.”

In my current role on the UX team at Concur, I’ve had a crash course in understanding the business world. I have really seen how my bosses have had to walk a tightrope between UX strategy and business strategy.

Our bosses, and our clients if we work in the agency world, have invested time and money in hiring us to design and build products that will be great for our users. But their primary goal is to help the business succeed, and that means making money. They empathize with users, but UX is really a strategic business investment.

As the front line creators, we need to understand how to help the business succeed. We need to learn the industry our products will be a part of, and we need to understand the company we’re working for.

As we’re working, our decisions need to be user-focused. And we need to focus on how to make things that will improve the state of the business. We can do that through revenue generating ideas, and ideas that will move a company toward being a leader in its industry.

When we talk to our clients and bosses, we need to explain our user-centered design and development decisions in a way that helps them see why they’re important to the success of the business. You may have had the user in mind when making a design decision, but you need to present it in a way that highlights why helping the user provides the value to the company.

3. Empathy for each other

Making awesome things does not involve tearing someone else’s creation down.

We get better at our craft, and earn our good reputations, because of the work that we do and how we work with other people.

The time is takes you to write a snarky tweet about the latest Windows release, or to pick apart the new brand released by a major corporation, or to write a 3 page blog post about why someone built something using the wrong methods, is time that you are not creating anything of value.

You were not in the room when product decisions were made. You don’t understand the constraints that were part of the project from the beginning. And you don’t know if the person who worked on the project was a struggling new designer or developer who didn’t get the guidance they needed to succeed.

We need to empathize with everyone who puts their soul into their work, and puts something out there. It’s scary, because no matter how good we know our product is, there will always be haters. No matter how many thousands of people love our work, there is that one guy who will try and tear you down. And it’s that one nasty comment that will stick in our heads and make us doubt our abilities.

We need to encourage each other to do better work. We need to give constructive criticism, and we need to give it in the appropriate venue and at the appropriate time (here’s a hint, twitter is neither).

Treat every person who makes art, or builds products, or designs services with the kindness and respect that they deserve.

And remember to treat yourself with the same respect.