Empathy: The Heart of Good Design

A powerful way to improve your design skills

Reading Creative Confidence By Tom and David Kelly of IDEO made me realize more than ever how much empathy plays a role in creating truly great and impactful designs.

We all know of this age-old rule: Art is for the Artist and Design is for the User.

So why is it that so many designers today are forgetting this rule and continue to design visuals and experiences for themselves?

I’m the first one to admit that we have made a few selfish designs in the past. Though not always intentional, we’ve placed buttons in locations where we’d like them to be, chose fonts that we just liked and even chose colors without really taking a deeper dive into who the audience really is. And by doing so, we were not doing our job as professional designers and ultimately made a disservice to our clients and their users.

So, how can designers prevent unintentional selfish designing from happening?

The answer: Design Empathy.

Design empathy is an approach that draws upon people’s real-world experiences to address modern challenges. Without the understanding of what others see, feel, and experience, design is simply a pointless task.

Empathy is a powerful force. Research shows that when we are empathetic, we enhance our ability to receive and process information. Putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes—a part of our subconscious behavior—causes measurable changes in our cognitive style, increasing our so-called field-dependent thinking.

Our work as designers is to fully understand our users or at least try to put ourselves in our user’s shoes. And in order to understand users we need to understand their needs and goals that are often hidden – or at least the user is not aware of them.

The best way to understand the users (and probably most popular among designers) is observation. By observing how people use products in their natural environments, a designer is able to get into other peoples’ shoes and see what otherwise would be incomprehensible.

So next time you find yourself stuck with a project or find that a design isn’t performing as you imagined it would, get out in the world and see how real life users interact with your design. Are they levitating towards something you didn’t expect them to? Are they helplessly clicking on something they were hoping was a link? Are they getting distracted by some design element? These observations will help you design something that solves their problem and needs. Not just something new and beautiful.

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