Breaking Development: Designing with Empathy

by Luke Wroblewski October 22, 2013

In his presentation at Breaking Development in Nashville TN Aaron Gustafson highlighted the importance and value of considering design decisions from the perspective of your customers. Here's my notes from his talk on Designing with Empathy.

  • Design is in everything we do but it is not art. Art is first and foremost a way to express ourselves. Design, on the other hand, is problem solving.
  • Your ego is a bad designer. We need to solve actual problems in our business with design not dwell in self-expression. Usability is a key consideration for Web design.
  • Just because you can doesn't mean you should. Design isn't about showing off.
  • We should be designing things to have a conversation. Design is communication.
  • Empathy is the ability to share an experience vicariously with others. Empathy is sharing an experience without being there. We're wired to empathize and feel the things other's feel through mirror neurons. This isn't limited to humans. Animals can emphasize with each other as well.
  • Empathy requires listening, questioning, intuition, observation, and patience. We need to learn from others by paying attention to what they do and say. Take the time to understand people's perspective and situation.
  • Two hours of direct exposure to one participant is just as valuable as talking to several people for short amounts of. Listen to what people say but use your intuition when making decisions.
  • Be patient: something may have happened. Give people the benefit of the doubt.
  • Empathy is about showing solidarity with others. Solidarity requires communication and being able to talk on a human to human level.
  • We are able to empathize by seeing ourselves in others. Thinking about your self in a future or possible state allows you to consider how their situation could become yours.

Applied to the Web

  • Personas can be helpful for aligning teams with customers but be careful to not confuse personas with actual users.
  • User scenarios provide situational empathy. Call out the relevant facts of the situation. Use just enough details to be able to be able to imagine yourself in someone else's shoes. User scenarios allow us to empathize in a way that is productive. We can design accordingly.
  • Set a performance budget that outlines how big a page/app or site can be. This allows you to keep the size (and therefore download times) down.
  • Author appropriate content: speak our user's language, avoid jargon, write in an appropriate tone and voice.
  • Consider physical limitations: make sure text is readable, actions can be tapped, keyboard access is available, make it easier for people to accomplish tasks. Mobile first development is a great way to make sure things can run in a wide range of capabilities.
  • Don't create unnecessary barriers: provide access to anyone. Progressive enhancement can help you avoid browser-specific requirements.
  • Don't force your agenda on your users. Be respectful of their decisions and choices (app download screens, high resolution images, auto-playing videos)
  • Consider indirect users: how is your product going to be used in circumstances outside your control.
  • Support common assistive technologies: use ARIA to increase accessibility. Don't hide content from users and use Javascript to enhance an experience not to require it.
  • Help our users learn to accomplish things and reward them for it. Progressive reduction: removes part of an interface as people learn how to use it.
  • What it really comes down to is the golden rule: do on to others as you would have done onto you.