When empathy hurts design

Even with a knowledge of every user experience design technique, without a natural ability to empathise, you will struggle to be an excellent experience designer. However, empathy also has many pitfalls that can prevent you from delivering a great product or service.


1. Unconscious bias


I have written about unconscious bias a number of times, specifically when referring to how demographic personas are built. To recap, people are heavily influenced by their ingrained perceptions about specific demographic groups. The same can happen when you use empathy alone to determine the needs of a user. The nature of empathy is to try to put yourself in another person’s shoes, which often leads to a certain amount of projection. I’m very fond of Stanislavskian acting techniques when trying to provoke empathy, particularly ‘The Magic If’, an exercise designed to ask ‘If I was that person, how would I do this?’ It allows you to develop a deeper connection to others when representing them. However, it can also mean you make those subjects a little too much like you, eliminating the nuances you should be designing for.


2. Reduced decision-making ability


Good decision makers are not always the most empathetic people. True, they often use emotional intelligence to get the gist of the situation before making a call, but they are also good at disregarding irrelevant information and making trade-offs. It is very hard for empathetic people to make trade-offs because they feel connected to the needs of everyone and don’t always know when to deem some needs as less relevant than others. Yet all experienced designers know that most projects involve trade-offs and you need to focus on getting the best result for the key audience group at the very least.


3. Compromised stakeholder management


Stakeholder management can be the toughest part about being a designer. Very often, designers become so overwhelmingly frustrated with non-designers directing their efforts that they simply give up, only to be accused of delivering subpar work at the end of a project! This has been so since the dawn of time.


If we were to use our empathetic skills for a minute, we could understand why stakeholders feel the need to get involved in the design process:


  • It’s fun and like everyone, they enjoy feeling as if they are creating something, which is even more exhilarating for people who aren’t independently creative on a regular basis

  • Non-designers don’t have the language to justify your design decisions to their superiors but they can justify their own

  • Stakeholders have been put in charge of delivering a product and have to make decisions, even if they aren’t skilled in design


It is important for designers to be empathetic towards stakeholders, but it’s also important to know when to not. Sometimes being empathetic to their stresses and needs makes you forget that you are the designer; the professional who must find a way to push through on the direction that you know is right. Being swayed too easily can hurt the quality of your work significantly. Use research and experience to make an argument. Stay rational.


4. Mediocre design


When we try to please everyone all of the time, it can be difficult to produce a strong, robust design. Often, the best solution is something that has a clear viewpoint, a strong style, a singular treatment. Great design is often unapologetically bold. It is no accident that the best designs are often produced by uncompromising characters; they have a brave direction they want to follow and they cannot diminish the power of their vision through empathetic consultation. It is the core needs of the user we need to empathise with and then we need to commit to a clear vision.


Stay empathetic but find a filter

Empathy is a key part of what we do – there is certainly no denying that. But empathy is merely a starting point, one which should be refined with evidence. If you are a naturally empathetic person, you may need to develop a filter and learn when to turn it on in order to make better decisions. This comes with experience and relying a little more on insights than empathetic instincts.