I’ve seen a trend over the last few years in the user experience field. UXers have been making the transition into coaching. It’s not that they necessarily give up the important work of making products and services that make a difference in people’s lives. But they see something bigger. Even the Harvard Business Review touches on coaching, referring to Brené Brown’s work, but her work is hardly the first to focus on empathy.
My career path brought me in the opposite direction. I have an advanced degree in marriage and family therapy. Among the psychoanalytic methodologies I learned, I was particularly intrigued by Carl Rogers’ person-centered therapy. The basic tenants, Rogers argues, of successfully helping persons achieving change in their lives means the therapy relationship must include:
So, what does this have to do with UX? Certainly goals are more limited, because we are not directly seeking psychological wellness in our customers. We do have an agenda which is not always altruistic. However, I find that many UX folks want to see their work as being meaningful, and that meaning often comes with the hope that our work somehow makes a person’s life better, that it can, indeed, transform them for the good. When we approach our work from a “person-centered” perspective, we need empathy. We need to understand the pain of our customers and how our product or service solution can remedy that pain. We need to first understand our target users, then communicate this to key stakeholders. These stakeholders may be the development team members or even executive stakeholders.
I’ve found that UX folks come from many different backgrounds and disciplines. For some, listening comes easy. Empathy comes easy. For others, it’s a foreign concept. For all, the skill of listening – really listening – and achieving empathy are skills that are not purely innate but are learned.
As someone who was taught to counsel others, I remember a silly activity we would often conduct with couples. The Speaker-Listener technique, which derives its success from years of research and discussed in Fighting for Your Marriage, in part, encourages the listener to paraphrase back to the speaker what was just said. This allows the speaker to affirm that they were accurately heard or to clarify intent. I know that I have to work at being a good listener. My own bias or even my own thinking often gets in the way. We are taught in the realm of usability that we must focus on person’s behaviors rather than what they say (because sometimes what they say does not match what they do). Yet empathy can capture both, because it takes empathy to watch people to better understand their perspective and why they exhibit certain behaviors.
So, does empathy have a purpose in our work? Sure. Even if motives are for revenue and not completely altruistic, we produce products and services to benefit others. We seek to encourage success. But with this empathy for our users and having them feel heard comes a responsibility. True empathy means that we seek to make a person’s life better, not worse. So although the products and services we create can affect the behavior of our customers, we must be mindful that we remain person-centered rather than self-centered.