Success starts with empathy

Empathy in user research is the ability to understand the feelings, perspective and motivations of other people. As researchers, designers and developers, we have the difficult task of balancing complex user needs against business goals. However, when we develop a deep understanding of our user base, we significantly improve the chances of meeting and exceeding business objectives.

A user's experience is an outcome that designers can influence. Through good quality research and building empathy with the people who engage with your products and services, it's possible to design solutions that provide the outcomes that users desire.

Making assumptions about your user base is risky, very risky, but lots of companies do it. It can and has led to millions of pounds spent on products that users hate. Taking the time to understand your users' wants and needs, while employing an empathetic approach during research, design, and testing is key to success. Empathy will build trust and provide insights that no amount of guesswork can achieve, resulting in significant short-term and long-term business benefits.

We are not our users.

Understanding what matters to people requires you and your team to put away biases, set aside personal preferences, and see the world as they see it. To understand requires empathy.

People first, "users" second.

When we make an effort to empathise with users, we understand that our users are real human beings with values, behaviours, and emotions as complex as our own. Each of these characteristics influences the way our users interact with the systems we build.

What is UX?

"User experience" encompasses all aspects of a person's interaction with the company, its services, and its products.

Jacob Nielson
Neilson Norman Group,

Jacob Neilson's quote reminds us that UX isn't just about aesthetics, and many factors can influence and impact the user experience including knowledge, environment, emotion, ability and brand perception. Let's explore each of these factors in more detail.

Knowledge (Do I know how to use this?)

Some people may be using your product for the first time and may have limited or no knowledge of using it. But, at the same time, your product needs to meet the needs of experienced users. Products and services need to satisfy the demands of everyone who encounters them, regardless of knowledge level, so building empathy with a broad section of your user base is critical when making important design decisions.

Environment (Can I use this here?)

The environment in which a person uses your product or service plays a large part in their experience. For example, you may have to consider the user's safety when researching and designing a product. Let's imagine your app is for use inside a car entertainment system. You'll need to ensure that you're delivering value to the user while also limiting the amount of interaction required to use the app. You do not want your software to cause any distraction or potential harm to the user. The only way to effectively do this is through contextual enquiries; understanding the user's needs, and experiencing the environment. You should be testing your product while learning more about your users in a real-world situation.

Emotion (How does this make me feel?)

Understanding the emotions of users is crucial to designing with empathy. We must consider our users' state of mind when interacting with our products, but we must also understand how people want us to make them feel.

There seems to be a considerable number of UX design companies who emphasise designing 'delightful' experiences. While the feeling of 'delight' is an emotion I'm sure most of us want to encounter often, it's only really relevant to certain types of product. And, realistically, how many times have you felt 'delighted' by software? Think of somebody who is grieving and trying to organise a funeral for a loved one, or, a heart-surgeon performing a life-saving operation. Both have very different needs, goals and emotions.

When we research using empathy, your users will let you know how they expect to feel when they use your product.


Ability is a critical factor in understanding your users. If you're creating a product for the general public, your user base includes people from all walks of life. You'll need to put inclusivity and accessibility high in your list of priorities, and you'll need to research and empathise with a wide selection of people. A statement we often hear from stakeholders is; "If I can do it, anyone can do it!".

Brand perception

For a customer, there could be many touchpoints with your business and its products. Some of these may be offline. You'll want to ensure that the overall experience for your users is seamless and familiar. Otherwise, your customers may get frustrated and move to a competitor product. Make sure that you map out the entire experience and research your users' experience at every touchpoint.

So, if you are in any way involved with the design or delivery of a product or service, and you want to understand your user base through building empathy with them, remember to:

  • Appreciate their knowledge level
  • Experience their environment
  • Feel their emotion
  • Understand their ability
  • Relate to their concerns

Building empathy isn't only for users; you should develop empathy with stakeholders too. In turn, your stakeholders should also be empathising with users, which raises the question, "Who is responsible for the user experience of a product or service?"

The short answer to that is, all of us. Everyone involved in the creation and delivery of a product or service is somewhat accountable for its outcome.

Techniques used to empathise with people.

Research using empathetic techniques must be carried out throughout a product's lifecycle, not just at the beginning of product delivery. We can use many methods to gather the appropriate type and quantity of required feedback. Team members responsible for gathering user needs must use the following attributes alongside proven techniques to understand and share the data collected.

Team members must:

  • Listen (Focus groups, Diary studies)
  • Observe (Field studies, Usability testing)
  • Understand (Empathy mapping, Experience mapping, Shared visioning)
  • Question (User interviews, Surveys)
  • Collaborate (Discovery workshops, Design Sprints)

The above list contains only a small selection of methods used to research people's needs, motivations and goals.

Focus on outcomes

Another fundamental goal of user experience design is to focus on user outcomes. Business metrics are vital but paying attention only to sales targets, revenue, and operating costs undermines the efforts to focus on the problems that matter most to users of your offerings.

Empathising with people teaches you about their motivations and the outcomes they are trying to achieve. Get it right for your users, and business targets will take care of themselves.

The business impact of ignoring users

Many designers have to continually advocate for users' needs in an environment where more senior stakeholders argue that "The user needs are important, but..."

When businesses consider building or revamping their products and services, they often look at options to minimise upfront costs and effort. The first casualty of budget cuts is usually user research. We often hear:

"We already know what our users want."

"We've been doing this for years."

"It's what the CEO wants."

By failing to invest in user research, businesses risk losing substantially more money, consuming time and effort in creating software that users hate.

This short-term thinking can lead to significant business challenges, and when users don't like your first attempt at a product, you may not get a second chance.

For consumer-based products, a failure to research customers often results in low conversion rates, bad reviews and diminishing referrals. When building products for your staff, ignoring the user experience leads to poor productivity, low morale, high employee turnover and increased costs.

The high cost of poor user experience

Avon Products Inc

A disturbing and costly example of a company ignoring user experience reached the business press in 2013. Avon Products Inc cancelled the rollout of a $125 million implementation of SAP when sales representatives refused to use the new system. Testing uncovered that users found the system burdensome and disruptive to their daily routines. As a result, many representatives left the company, unable to continue feeling that the new system would make their jobs more difficult. Avon cancelled the worldwide release and wrote off millions in costs.

Avon CS
Avon's Failed SAP Implementation Reflects Rise of Usability - The Wall Street Journal

Avon's failure to listen to its representatives highlights the importance of early and continuous research. People are accustomed to using well-designed products, from phones to smartwatches and in-car entertainment systems. Users now have little patience for poorly designed applications, especially in the workplace.

When research leads the way

Through research, observation and listening, companies will gather evidence-based data that leads the design process and focuses on user needs and goals. Users will get an insight into what the future will look like and can help shape it to provide the outcome that they need.

In summary

If you're not already using empathy to understand the people you serve, you can start by:

  • Investing in user research
  • Having a long term vision
  • Focusing on user outcomes
  • Ensuring your whole company cares about UX
  • Being human
  • Always listening

At Black Pepper, we are more than just consultants, engineers and account managers. We always go the extra mile and always keep your business goals firmly in mind. During the last 21 years, we’ve been distilling our learning, trying to work out what ingredients are needed to guarantee a successful product. We found that building research-led, human-centred custom software is fundamental to the way we work and is essential for building great software. Discover our proven three-step approach here.

3 step approach