Illustration by Sean MacEntee

Standing on street corners trying to convince passers-by to buy whatever you’re selling is arguably the worst job in the world.

It doesn’t matter what it is that you are selling: whether it’s an experience or an item, whether it’s free or not, blindly casting a net into a crowd will rarely yield desirable results. But what’s the problem with that, really? Your product is great. Just about anyone can use it, so shouldn’t you be selling it to anyone and everyone? Probably not.

Basic business sense will tell you that you need to know your demographic: who is your product for? How old are they? How much do they make in a year? What’s their highest level of education? These questions need answering. Once you have your responses, do you then have ?

Well… Demographics are like statistics. Who you are is not 35 years old. Who you are is not your diploma/major/college degree. You are a person (I hope) with behaviours, preferences, histories, failures, successes, dreams and needs. You are an incredible anomaly — there will only ever be one of you. I’m sure you share many similarities with people your age and with your fellow alumni at your alma matter, but you undoubtedly have differences too. Demographics do not satisfactorily take these things into account. Because your users are not numbers. They are people.

So you’ve sketched out your business plan: you know your user demographics, you know — very generally — who you’re building for, and maybe you even have personas. Your team has taken a shallow dive into the lives of your ideal user, you’ve conducted some interviews, and you know what pains your average user. You know some of their likes and dislikes, and you have created an amalgam based on your strenuous interviews and surveys.

So is this empathy?

I would argue that it is not.

Well, what the hell is empathy?

“Empathy is a powerful tool. You don’t have to have experienced things yourself to be able to feel empathy.” — Lewis Baumander

Over many years of screen and stage acting, I never encountered another acting coach quite like Lewis Baumander. He was brilliant. He never let ego get in the way of his teaching practice. He encouraged us to prove his theories wrong, and to find the science in everything.

There is a longstanding acting technique called Method acting. It is founded on the idea that an actor must experience something before they are able to convey it truthfully. Actors become famous for their dedication to the Method. They will throw themselves into a role and allow it to take over their lives. But is it necessary to experience something first hand in order to relate to those affected by it?

Rosenfeld Media

People have always been storytellers. Before Netflix and the written word, we have been passing stories down from generation to generation. Stories serve to entertain, to instruct and to aid in reflection. Stories have the power to make us laugh, to make us cry, to make us angry and to make us pensive. Stories invoke thought — they add meaning to our lives. We tell stories of everyday things to each other. Our personal stories are what we share with friends and family. Even without the theatrics of film, just listening to a story can envelop you. We can immerse ourselves in stories that are not our own. We can play them out in our mind. We can feel what protagonists feel. We can hurt because they hurt.

This is what it means to truly empathize: we do not need to have bled to feel pain, we do not need to have lost to feel sadness. As humans, it is our ability to empathize that helps us create meaningful connections with each other. As designers, it is our responsibility to make meaningful connections with our users — or, in other words, to empathize with them.

Empathy in 

It is not enough to know what our users’ pain points are. We must also be driven by a need to minimize that pain. Business models are incredibly important to keep sight of, but we must also wholeheartedly design for our users. Users will remember a company that truly cares about them, and demonstrates a desire to improve user lives and ease user pains. If this can be achieved while maintaining good business sense, then your company is golden.…

So what does this really look like? It begins with effective user research. Your company is there to solve a problem. Most entrepreneurs will know what this problem is before they begin. While it’s great to have an idea of the problem you want to solve, if you really listen to your users, their real needs might surprise you.

I set out to create a prototype of a fitness app that would revolutionize the way we view the industry. I was constantly being bombarded by apps that featured an ideal body type. These phrases “get fit” and “lose weight” seemed to yield the same definitions to these companies. I felt crazy for being of the opinion that personal fitness cannot be determined through body type alone: genetics lend such a great hand in outward appearance that a person might have the “ideal” body type, but may have never set foot in a gym. My goal was to change that perception. I wanted to encourage a larger sampling of people to focus on their fitness using body positive models to demonstrate exercises, and no mention of ideals or weight loss. When I delved into user research, I found that my assumptions were a little off.

It turned out that models with six packs were not holding the average person back from seeking improved fitness. In fact, it was terrible habits and habit building technique that stood in my users’ way. How was I able to discover this? Empathy and an open mind.

View the full case study

Before I hosted user interviews I had a problem to solve: places of fitness were not inclusive to all body types and all fitness goals. I even had a solution for this problem in mind. Despite thinking that I had all the answers, I put my assumptions aside and asked very general questions. What does your average day look like? What is your definition of healthy? Would you call yourself healthy? Why or why not?

By opening myself up to further possibilities, and listening to and empathizing with my users, it didn’t take long for me to see a pattern form. My desire to help my users, and my empathy for their struggles allowed me to pivot my product and to make something better for them.

This is how we use empathy in design. By listening to the stories of our users and being open to the possibility that everything we know is wrong, we create products that are better for our users and, in turn, better for our businesses. Ego has no place in empathetic design. Our users have problems, and they want products that will help ease their struggles. They want to tell us their stories, to share their opinions and to make connections with us. If we allow for this, and we create opportunities for them to do this, we will be taking the first step towards empathetic design.

Most importantly, we must listen. We must open ourselves up and allow their stories to envelop us. From there every design decision must be made with our users in our minds, and in our hearts. When we design for them, we design with empathy.

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