“The great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy” - Meryl Streep.
On a sunny morning in May 2008, a design enthusiast was walking around Caracas International airport as he waited for a flight to Las Vegas. He had qualified as a fair finalist to Topcoder Open 2008 in the UI Design track. In order to achieve this, he had put in hundreds of hours of effort, sleepless nights, and sacrifices. Thirty minutes before the flight takes off, he decides that he still has time to go eat something, so he finds a good place to eat “arepas”. He enjoys this delicious meal as if it was the best one he ever had. Then he decides to walk back to the boarding area. In his naivety, as the farm boy he is, he thinks airports work like bus terminals; he can catch the bus even five minutes before the scheduled departure time (even after that!). Confident that he was doing something good, he gets to the boarding area five minutes before the scheduled departure time.
I’d like you to think for a moment, what do you think happened after his arrival at the boarding area? Luis missed his flight to Las Vegas. Luis lost the opportunity to compete in the finals. Luis ruined his streak of sleepless nights and sacrifice with an “arepa”. Did you feel anything in your senses to make you want to take action and push Luis to get to the boarding area faster? If you somehow felt moved by Luis’ unfortunate fate, it’s very likely that the root of this emotion is something known as empathy. We humans, as social creatures that we are, all - should - have it.
As a result of chemical reactions in our body, I don’t think it has a particular purpose. It can become a virtue, soft skill or trait depending on how it affects us. An important question to ask here is, how does empathy help with design? As a tenet of User Experience Design, empathy is a must. It’s an essential element that helps designers connect with the user’s emotions and needs; as Meryl Streep mentioned and I dare to alter, empathy is a superpower for designers. I don’t see how a helpful experience can be designed without considering the user’s emotions and behavior. In consequence, by understanding the user’s emotions - with an extra eye on frustrations - we become more aware of the user’s wants and needs, the right amount of hindsight to let us come up with creative solutions that have a positive emotional impact on the user.
How do I use my empathy superpower in Topcoder challenges? That would be the next very good question to ask, for our intentions. How about connecting to the user in a way that no other designer cared about? This gives you an advantage in the challenge because you can foresee errors, mistakes, and frustrations like no other. If I had a coin for every time I assumed I knew the user in my challenges but ended up being in a totally dark place regarding their emotions I’d be … still broke but at least with more challenge victories in my pockets.
Despite that we normally don’t have direct access to users or research results, we have two tools we can use to get to know the users better, to empathize with their pain and create solutions to improve their lives: the power of questions and our common sense.
In UX, research in all its forms is the approach to follow in order to get to know the user. Lots of efforts are wisely invested in studying user behavior with qualitative and quantitative research. In plain simple words, we must find a way to step into someone else’s shoes. It’s not easy, considering the fact that we don’t actually share or live with the same problems as the user, so we must not fall in the trap of just being sympathetic (pity). It’s definitely better than nothing but that’s not enough, unfortunately.
I insist, we must find ways to feel the user’s annoyance, her frustrations, her challenges. In UX practice, there are known techniques to get to know the user, such as the mentioned research, observation, testing, empathy map and so on.
📣 The Power Of Questions
What type of research can we do in Topcoder to step into our user’s shoes? The goal is to pick up as many details as we can about the user’s emotions, environment and behavior. So we elaborate a good set of questions and go to the forums and find out what’s going on with the user. The challenge copilot, PM or client will definitely help with this.
Open-ended questions are the holders of the keys of information we want to find. For example, it’s not enough just to ask “Is the client happy with the current product” because it leads to a yes/no answer. We need more juice. How about “what makes the client happy about the current product?” Now we’re talking, this type of question will give us more details.
The foundations of the questions were marvelously explained by ToxicPixel in his 5Ws article.____text in bold I’ll focus on practical questions that help to unveil the emotions of the users:
Why does the user need this application?
What are the user frustrations?
How does this application help the user?
How does feature X affect the user? (if you think that feature X is a source of pain/happiness).
What are the user goals?
What’s the most difficult challenge for the user?
What would give the user more power?
🧠 Common Sense
Now we have some knowledge about the user. We have another resource, which is our imagination. We can put it into practice in order to put ourselves into the user’s shoes, to draw a mental map of their frustrations, their happiness and their challenges regarding the solution we have to design.
In terms of artifacts, it comes in handy to create your own persona using the information you collect from the forums, print it and sleep with it if necessary - feel the pain. It will help you notice opportunities in the workflows and requirements for improving the user’s life through your design. Just ask yourself: if you know - and feel - that the user suffers to navigate the existing pages, then what can you do to change that? After you change it, go to the persona again, ask yourself, is this new navigation helping the user?
This cycle will help you get deep into the user’s emotions, deep in using your UX superpower - empathy.
Dribbble | Arthur Chayka.