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Evolving Your Design Process by Changing Your Mindset, Part 3: How to Bring More Empathy to Your Design

Sara Novak

By Sara Novak

Design Director


Design Productivity

September 20, 2017

This blog series introduces mindsets that you can adopt to help you more intuitively evolve your design process to create more impactful work. In this final post I’ll share a mindset I use to infuse more empathy into our design process. To learn how to bring more research to your design or how to bring more self-awareness to your design by applying a new mindset, read the two previous posts in this series.

Mindset: Empathy is contagious.

We conduct user research to understand our user so we can create something that truly caters to their behaviors, wants, and needs, not our own. User research allows us to get to know our user and develop empathy for them. It’s empathy that allows us to remain connected with our user and effectively advocate for them throughout a project.

Don’t get me wrong — the fabulous user research reports being made can lead to great data-driven design based on analytics, quantitative user research findings, and insightful user quotes, but data-driven design is different than user-driven design. Without empathy, the user’s motivations and drivers will be largely ignored even if they are carefully documented in a research report or design brief. Empathy is required to help your team understand the user’s motivations in a meaningful way. And having a single assigned empathetic user advocate on your team is not enough to lead the whole team to a user-driven solution.

Ideally, every member of your team (and the client team) would all participate first-hand in every user research activity you conduct. But we know this is rarely a realistic possibility. However, there are plenty of easy ways to help your team understand your user and build empathy. As people we are drawn to other people — we desire human connections. So “humanize” your user and your team will naturally connect with them. You don’t have to lecture your team on empathy, just create the right situations and it will naturally grow. Here are a few easy ways to do just that.

  • Make a highlight reel. Many user testing platforms have great highlight-reel features built in to make it easy to share key moments from testing with the full team. Seeing real people puts faces to the words “our users,” “our customers,” and, my least favorite, “our target audience.”
  • Make persona cards. Create playing-card versions of the key personas and give a set to everyone on the project. Require everyone to bring these cards to every meeting so “the user” always has a physical presence and a face. And not just one face but several. It’s okay to make conscious decisions to prioritize certain user groups or personas over others, but having persona cards will allow the team to make these decisions thoughtfully.
  • Role play. In every meeting assign each persona to a team member. For that meeting they are that persona. This way your users are represented in all discussions and decisions. Even if it is a development scrum, a persona could speak up and say “That seems complicated.” “Why do I even need that feature?” or “This feature is exactly what I need. Can we make it easier to find?”

As I leave you, instead of throwing quotes about the power of the mind and change at you, I’ll just say I hope this is helpful and I would love to hear about any ways of thinking that have helped you improve your designs and process. Leave me a comment or reach out to me at @senovak on Twitter.

Related Posts

Evolving Your Design Process by Changing Your Mindset, Part 1: How to Bring More Research to Your Design

Sara Novak, our Design Director, discusses the importance of using research as a tool, rather than thinking about it as a phase. This is part one of her three-part series on design process.


Evolving Your Design Process by Changing Your Mindset, Part 2: How to Bring More Self-Awareness to Your Design

Our Design Director, Sara Novak, outlines the importance of actively identifying the biases and assumptions we have that can affect a project and how it can be done.