Are You Actually Designing for the User? A Case for Empathetic Design


Web designers are the artists of the technology world. As such, it can be tempting to view a project as a form of self-expression, another notch in a portfolio that reflects our personal philosophy and goals. However, when designing a project for users, this is the wrong approach.

Designers don’t work to display their creativity to the world, but to solve a customer problem. This is the basis of all design work – to help users achieve their business goals. It may not be a romantic or artistic notion, but it’s the nature of the beast. Unfortunately, it’s also a concept that designers ignore too often.

When designing a new project, it’s essential to establish a client’s potential users, as well as their needs and wants. This is where user research comes in – this concept is essential for designing an end product that empathizes with a user’s needs and wants, which meets the business goals of a client.

What is User Research?

First, a primer: User research is the comprehensive set of activities we leverage when we want to collect information about a potential target audience. The methods we use to collect this information may vary by client, but the end result is the same: researchers collect and analyze information about real users, and designers use this information to create solutions that make the end product attractive and intuitive to the target user.

Quality user research requires delving deep into the target audience to understand their needs, wants, and even psychological makeup. Using this information, designers can extrapolate the best colors, stylings, and interactions based on the emotions and experiences of the target group.

In other words, user research allows a designer to delve into the mind of a target user and create a product that will draw their attention.

User research forms the basis of designing websites with empathy – when we use this term, we say that we understand what a user wants and needs from their experience. By “stepping into their shoes,” user research allows us to design products that will entice each user into interacting with an end product. We can create products that not only work well, but do the things that users want them too.

Why is Empathetic Design So Difficult?

Spelled out in writing, empathetic design doesn’t seem so hard to understand. It’s much harder, however, for most designers to apply. Why is this?

Detachment between designers and users during projects can be damaging to user experience, and it happens more often than you might think. If you want to know why, think about the last time you witnessed a knock-down, drag-out cyber fight on a social media network. Each party is so focused on getting their own opinion across, they don’t take time to absorb what the other person is saying. Seem familiar?

When working on a project, designers can become so involved in applying their own design philosophies and knowledge of best practices that they forget what their user research is telling them. You can design the most attractive and intuitive end-product in the world, but it won’t matter unless your target audience receives the intended experience.

To make matters worse, research shows that males tend to have lower levels of empathy, and those working in technological fields tend to value logic over empathy. Given these facts, it’s easy to see that empathy in design doesn’t come easily to many professionals.

William Hudson, in his paper Reduced Empathizing Skills Increase Challenges for User-Centred Design, notes that a prominent issue in design is the notion that assumes users will follow similar methodology and digest learning curves in the same manner as developers and designers. He calls this the “self-as-user” outlook.

Combating this bias and taking the time to incorporate user research thoughtfully into design takes practice and hard work, but it’s well worth the effort.

How to Become a More Empathetic Designer

Empathy can be described as the ability to understand and connect with someone else’s emotions, goals, and motivations. In the context of web design, this doesn’t necessarily mean feeling what other people feel. Rather, it’s the process by which you apply user research to your own thinking and execution in your web design project.

There are a number of exercises designers can do to increase their understanding of others, and therefore create better projects. The ultimate goal of these exercises should be to increase open-mindedness, reduce self-as-user bias, and collaborate. Dorothy Leonard and Jeffrey Rayport outline an “empathetic design process” that proceeds as follows:

  • Step 1: Decide who must be observed and which behaviors we must observe to create a better product.
  • Step 2: Collect user research. This is often qualitative in nature and establishes the actions, behaviors, methods, and approaches the target population uses to identify and solve problems.
  • Step 3: Analyze the data. Team members get together and discuss what they learned from the user research. This is the point where designers attempt to understand and identify with their target customer’s needs and wants.
  • Step 4: Brainstorm solutions. Using the data, team members can attempt to create innovative solutions that address problems for the user.
  • Step 5: Prototype. In this last step, designers bring the solutions from the brainstorming session to life, and you put your empathetic design to the test.

If you’re still struggling to apply empathetic design to your products, try the following simple suggestions:

  • Listen consciously. We all get caught in the trap of smiling and nodding to appear amenable. But are you actually listening to what the other person is saying? Before we can truly begin to achieve empathy, we must hone our listening skills. Listening is the essential legwork to practicing empathy in everyday life.
  • Get rid of distractions. We live in a world rife with distractions. Have you ever been in a phone conversation with someone, only to realize you had no idea what they were saying? Maybe it’s because you were surfing the web or checking your social media networks. Be fully present when collecting and analyzing user information – your end product will reflect it.
  • Don’t make assumptions. We all make assumptions about people, whether we like to admit it or not. In product design, we might make assumptions about a user based on age or income level. However, preconceived notions only serve to distance you from a target user and will cloud your interpretation of data. Consciously approach your user research with an open mind, and leave your own preferences out of it.

These simple tasks will help you increase your open-mindedness and reduce bias. This will not only make your design process better, but your end product, as well.


It’s essential for designers to hone an understanding of how they can design products that appeal to, support, and solve problems for the target user. While we cannot fully understand what it means to be each and every user that interacts with a given product, our research and empathetic design process can result in a product that solves problems for more users. By researching how people think, feel, and troubleshoot, we can design a product that will actually be beneficial.

When we strive to create empathetic design, we naturally play to user strengths and enable them to make the most of their experience. In contrast, the self-as-user bias can lead to wasted energy, time, and resources – all while delivering a subpar product to the client.

Additionally, consumer-facing products speak to an ever-evolving and continuously expanding pool of users, whose patterns and priorities are constantly changing. This highlights the importance of gathering and applying user research in a thoughtful way. Every designer has room to improve their empathy – using empathetic design can prove to be an intensely rewarding challenge, which can keep your business ahead of the curve.

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