This post is a little bit different to the other posts on this blog. I’d be interested in your feedback.
More and more, in the User Experience (UX) / Customer Experience (CX) field I am seeing and hearing references to empathy. From peers, yes. But also from product managers and people involved in customer service functions. If you want to be able to develop great experiences, you need to be able to practise empathy.
em-pa-thy ˈem-pə-thē: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also: the capacity for this
Who needs to practise empathy? I would argue, that to be a successful UX / CX practitioner, you need to practise it. (I’m not really talking about them in this article – I think they get it.) But I would also argue that anyone who is creating things for end users, or who has ‘customer’ in their job title should also be practising it.
And in some cases, these people are practising it. They are observing their end users. They are spending time with them, in the user’s environment. They are having conversations with their end users; really listening to what they’re saying and probing to find out more.
But in other cases, people are just practising lip service. They talk about empathy. But they are not practising it.
I suspect, that for people who don’t have ‘interact with your end users’ as part of their job description, there is an element of fear. Or maybe I’m being too kind. It could just be a ‘it’s not my job’ mentality. A sort of ‘aren’t there other people in this organisation who are paid to understand our end users?’ type attitude.
And maybe there are those types of people in the organisation. But nothing can replace actually experiencing that empathy first hand.
So maybe they just don’t really understand what empathy is. Or just how to practise it?
This has made me think. How can those of us, who understand and practise empathy, share this skill?
A few years ago I visited the excellent Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. On the reverse of your entrance ticket are the words “White” or “Non-White”. I was with 2 friends. Both of them had tickets with “White” on them, and I had a ticket with “Non-White” on it. Depending on whether you are “White” or “Non-White” determines which museum entrance you use. As we entered the museum and followed the pathway through the early parts of the museum, we were separated by jail-type bars. We could see, hear and touch each other through the bars, but we couldn’t cross onto the same path. It wasn’t obvious how long you would be in this situation for, because of how the path was designed. You couldn’t quite see the end.
There is no way I can claim to fully understand what it must have been like for a “Non-White” living in Apartheid South Africa. But to feel so separate from, in this case, my friends, really made me feel isolated and inferior. A very effective way of eliciting empathy in their museum visitors.
Another empathy tool I’ve come across is smearing vaseline across a pair of eye-glasses to simulate what it’s like not being able to see things properly.
Have you come across other tools that can be used in training sessions or workshops to really make people understand empathy? I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas.