partial recall

a blog of ideas, links, and musings.

On Empathy and UX


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:

  • Therapist–client psychological contact: a relationship between client and therapist must exist, and it must be a relationship in which each person’s perception of the other is important.
  • Client incongruence: that incongruence exists between the client’s experience and awareness.
  • Therapist congruence, or genuineness: the therapist is congruent within the therapeutic relationship. The therapist is deeply involved him or herself — they are not “acting” — and they can draw on their own experiences (self-disclosure) to facilitate the relationship.
  • Therapist unconditional positive regard (UPR): the therapist accepts the client unconditionally, without judgment, disapproval or approval. This facilitates increased self-regard in the client, as they can begin to become aware of experiences in which their view of self-worth was distorted by others.
  • Therapist empathic understanding: the therapist experiences an empathic understanding of the client’s internal frame of reference. Accurate empathy on the part of the therapist helps the client believe the therapist’s unconditional love for them.
  • Client perception: that the client perceives, to at least a minimal degree, the therapist’s UPR and empathic understanding.

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.