Empathy-driven design: a definition, the benefits, and practical applications to design valuable user experiences

06 April 2021Reading time: 4 min.

Empathy-driven and data-informed: here are two essential principles to describe what it means to follow a human-centered design approach. We’ll explore both aspects in a 2-part article. This will relay our experience and help understand what it means and how to apply it. 

We like to say that those who follow a human-centered design approach, no matter if they’re designers or not, are empathy driven and data informed. 

This first part will focus on the definition. We’ll take you behind the scenes of MailUp to tell you what it means to be empathy driven and how we apply this principle to designing our services, products, and processes. 

In fact, MailUp isn’t just a brand, a platform, or a site. MailUp is a living system that interacts with people—its prospects, its customers, and its users. This living system is designed to satisfy needs and convey values. This is why we speak of a human-centered approach. 

How do those who design the MailUp system understand their interlocutors and actually focus on the person? We use empathy throughout the entire customer journey to:

  • research and collect insights on the needs of those who choose us because we listen to them;
  • design solutions and validate our ideas by talking to users, and
  • support experiences with our customers’ contexts in mind.

UX design: how to design it for Email Marketing

What’s empathy?

Empathy isn’t a feeling. Rather, it’s a cognitive ability. It comes from the flexibility of our mind in abandoning a set of information for another, i.e., in changing perspective.

In practice, empathy isn’t a thing but a verb: empathizing clarifies the reason for the choices we make and illustrates what clicks in the minds of those who choose us.

When following the conventional process in developing products and services, we tend to focus only on solutions. In a human-centered approach, empathy helps rebalance that perspective by paying attention to people. Understanding the points of view and how our interlocutors think makes us more confident in choosing among various possibilities. It lets us feed the strategy with data and collaborate more effectively.

Practical listening methods pick up the value from our interlocutor’s stories. This brings out their points of view and represents their contexts, even when they’re different from what we expect. Here are the most common techniques for drawing tangible results from empathy:

  • semi-structured narrative interviews 
  • usability tests 

How is an empathy-driven approach put into practice? The 4 rules of empathy

Besides the practical activities for conducting an interview or an observation (defining research questions, recruiting participants, and analyzing insights and reports), there are 4 rules of empathy that must be followed and be applied during a session. 

These rules are also good for tests with users: in this case, dialogue isn’t centered around storytelling. Rather, it’s an observation of how users interact with the solutions we design (whether they’re products or services).

moderated usability testing example

A Nielsen Norman Group moderated usability testing example

Let’s take a deeper look into what these 4 rules are. 

Go with the flow

The first rule of empathy is to go with the user’s flow. We do it like so:

  • Start with a broad topic
  • Let the interlocutor direct it
  • Use as few words as possible
  • Repeat a topic to show attention, verify understanding, and further question
  • Don’t use different words from those of the interlocutor
  • Avoid saying “I”

Offer support

Besides going with the user’s flow, you must support him/her through these simple steps:

  • Don’t pretend, be present
  • Don’t change the subject abruptly
  • Adapt to the mood
  • Don’t raise doubts or worries

Show respect

Showing empathy means being both supportive and making sure the interlocutor feels respected:

  • Follow, don’t drive
  • Resist the urge to prove how smart you are
  • Keep in mind that the interlocutor isn’t mistaken

Suspend judgment

Last but not least, is withholding all judgments. In fact, it’s essential that the user doesn’t feel judged in any way by his or her interlocutors during an empathic approach. To ensure there’s no judgmental attitude: 

  • Pay attention to your own reactions and dissipate them
  • Listen without the urge to analyze

What are the results?

What do marketing, design, the product, sales, and customer value teams get from these activities? Invaluable information. 

Let’s take the tangible example of MailUp’s Personas. Here are the profiles of decision makers and users that the entire business unit has created by working together through a process full of empathy.

MailUp Personas workshop 1
MailUp Personas workshop 2

The first step was about creating profiles based on internal knowledge. These are called Protopersonas. Fifty-two people from all the company’s teams worked on it (for a total of 10 hours). Information on the needs, emotions, and goals of their customers and users emerged from it. They created 20 profiles. These have been the starting point of a qualitative research through surveys and interviews that validated the information hypothesized by the internal team. The insights of this research have brought out 12 profiles from which the business department started to define the strategy’s priorities

Empathy hasn’t just founded the personas creative process but also the pragmatic and daily use by the various teams:

  • Does a webpage need to be redesigned? The first question should be: “who are” those who’ll use it. Then, we should define the business requirements and analyze the technological system.
  • Should we plan blog posts? Let’s ask ourselves what the prospect readers are interested in. 
  • Do we need to prioritize the features to be released? Let’s find the most urgent ones for our users. 

And so on. 

Personas provide the answer plus the live, continuously updated reference for the teams to “know” who’s out there. Personas allow for new colleagues to navigate the sea of information with adequate awareness.

WOSP Personas example

Source: WOSP Personas

Empathy facilitates constant dialogue, even when the interlocutor is absent. In fact, MailUp customers and users have a seat at the table, even when they aren’t physically there.

Personas are just one of the many results of adopting an empathy-driven approach. The navigation of a platform’s area was decided entirely with the users through various card sorting sessions. In order to choose the contents and the hierarchy of the menu labels, we drew upon users’ mental models. Similarly, we validated the redesign of most of the interfaces thanks to an iterative testing process with real users. There, empathy played a fundamental role.

What can you do?

Through an empathic approach, any professional can find the support to solve the most varied challenges with more lasting and reliable solutions. Whether you’re a team member or manager, whatever type of KPI you have, then empathy is for you. It’ll help you support your team and let them shine. It’ll guide you through the jungle of options that the business puts before you, giving you confidence in the usefulness of your choices.

Looking for support on how to practically apply empathy in a way that guarantees certain results? Knock on the door of your design team or come right on in: their door is always open.

See you soon! 

MailUp Design

This article was written by

MailUp Design

MailUp Design

MailUp Design is a group of designers who create and design all the touchpoint of the brand. This team cooperate with Marketing and Product Teams and support all the processes of Discovery, Research, Analysis, Deisgn and Monitoring related to the UX and UI solutions. MailUp designer are part of the MailUp Group Design community.

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