One of the greatest competitive advantages in web design today is the ability to build human-centered products. In this post, we look at the role that empathy plays in design and relationship-building and how empathy can better be achieved through MVP development.
Why is empathy so important in web design?
Take, for instance, the rise of GPT-3 and the possible threat that tools like ChatGPT and DALL-E pose to web designers, developers and other online creators. When we talk about these technologies as threats, the focus is typically on how they’re going to take our jobs and render human workers obsolete.
But imagine a world run by robots where web design and copy are all derivative. Sure, robots may be able to efficiently combine existing text or designs to create something different. However, unless AI becomes self-aware, it will never be able to create the way that we do as humans. Nor will it be able to take care of other humans the way that we can. Because robots have no empathy.
Empathy is what enables us to create human-centered products and experiences. But is empathy enough?
In this post, I want to look at what empathetic design entails and why a minimum viable product is essential if your goal is to design human-centered digital products.
Empathy is the ability to identify with what someone is feeling or thinking, and to understand why they do what they do. When you connect with someone on that level, you’re able to feel more deeply for them because you get it—their perspective, their intentions, their needs, their hesitations, their obstacles and so on.
This, in turn, makes you more willing and able to help them.
Sympathy is more disconnected. While you might feel badly for someone in a tough situation, there’s no real connection to what they’re thinking or feeling. Without that deeper understanding of what’s going on, you’re less likely to feel compelled to do anything about it.
Recognizing the difference between these two is important as it’s the drive to action that is needed in web design. And you can’t get to that point if you don’t truly understand or feel for the people you’re building products for.
Empathetic design isn’t just web design with a dose of empathy thrown in. It’s an actual process that enables designers to connect with the people they design products for. It’s the only way to approach web design empathetically. That is, unless you have first-hand experience with the users you’re building products for (like if you manage a restaurant in your spare time and build websites and apps for food establishments).
The empathetic design process is commonly associated with the various research and testing methodologies used in UX design.
First, you do research into the product you’re building, the existing market and the competitive landscape. The goal is to identify what type of products are currently being offered, how they’re fulfilling user demand, and missed opportunities and unmet needs.
Then, you gather information, make contact and get to know your target users. There are various research methodologies you can use. Market research. Focus groups. One-on-one interviews. Surveys and questionnaires. The goal is to find out more about who the users are, how they think and feel, and what they need vs. what they want.
As you begin to build out your product, you do more data gathering and observation to see how users feel about the product you’re developing. You’ll use methods like card sorting, tree tests, usability tests, diary studies, ethnographic studies and more. The goal is to ensure that user needs and expectations are being met during development while removing friction along the way.
The empathetic design process on its own is a good start. However, I don’t know if true empathy can be achieved just through research, testing and observation.
Here’s why I say that:
If you do substantial data collection and user observation, you might feel as though you understand their motivations, feelings and actions well. But are you really seeing the world and, specifically, the problem you’re trying to solve with this product through their eyes? Or is it more like looking at a chart with a whole bunch of numbers and being able to rationally and mathematically make sense of the bigger picture?
If you find yourself checking off a bunch of boxes, filling in answers and then making determinations based on observations, then all you’ve really done is turn users into data sets. And that’s no better than what a machine would do when trying to figure out who we are, what we think or what we need.
So how do you close that gap? I think that the minimum viable product (MVP) is key.
Let’s say a new neighbor has moved in next door. You occasionally run into them as you’re walking the dog, watering the lawn or playing with the kids. You do a little chit-chat and get to know them day by day.
Now let’s say that they ask for your help with something big. Like watching their kids for an unforeseeable timeframe while they deal with a family emergency across the country.
If they had asked you that within a few weeks of move-in, you’d feel really terrible about their situation. But would you have offered to take in their children for an unspecified amount of time? Probably not.
What if they had asked you that same request within a year or so of moving in? It would be a completely different ball game if you’d had all that extra time to get to know them, spend time with their family and get to know their personal situation.
This is the difference between doing research in the early stages of a design job and taking an iterative approach to research and design with an MVP.
A more careful and measured approach to developing digital products ensures that each subsequent contact you make with users becomes more meaningful. Instead of seeing users as just a source of data and feedback, over time they become people with real needs and feelings and pain.
You understand why they feel that way and it makes you want to get better results for them. So you become more invested in what you do as you see the product and its value from their perspective.
The web is awash with distractions, overwhelm and bad vibes these days. Analysis paralysis. Smartphone addiction. FOMO. Doom scrolling. Dark patterns. Not to mention all the divisiveness happening in the news and on social media.
There’s a lot of harm that can happen when people spend too much time online. Yet, people will continue to flock to websites and apps because they need them. To buy stuff. To connect with others. To do their jobs. Etc.
To have true empathy for your users, you have to build products that do more than just help them buy, do or get something. You have to make the experience of using the product feel good and rewarding, too.
The MVP design process forces the designer to strip out all the excess that often seeps into websites and apps. Like pop-ups, infinite scrolling, competing promotions, excessive banner ads, distracting sidebars, loading animations, upsells and cross-sells, and so on.
Instead, the designer focuses on building out as much of the product as needed to make it both usable and useful to users. Only once it’s confirmed that a new feature or an ornate design is needed or would greatly benefit the users does it get added.
The more time you spend in this mindset of keeping your products free of waste and distractions, the more you’ll start to think about other ways to reduce user harm and frustration.
For instance, accessible and inclusive design may become more integral parts of your MVP design process. Even something as seemingly minor as improving microinteractions might become a priority as they’ll make your product interactions feel less cold, confusing or inhuman.
One of the problems I have with the subject of empathy in web design is that it generally focuses on the process of the designer getting to know and better understand users.
Empathy is an essential part of all relationship building. So we should also be using it to improve the relationship between designer and client (or employer).
Client relationships and management can be such a huge pain point for designers. And I believe that MVPs are a way for designers to improve those professional relationships.
Rather than pitch clients some monstrous app or website concept with a huge budget, an MVP demonstrates that you want to take a more measured and economical approach to designing their product.
Even if they’re one of those clients who says “money is no object,” this isn’t really about building a cheaper product. This is about ensuring that they spend their money wisely—on user-validated concepts that will bring a greater return on their investment.
Over time, they might end up spending the same amount as the original pitch was. However, that money will have gone into changes that had a positive effect on everyone involved.
When you set out to build a complete product from the get go, there’s always the chance that the data you collected in the beginning was inaccurate or incomplete. Also, if you’re just getting to know your users, you might unintentionally fill in any blanks you have with old assumptions and biases.
Launching a website or app that is a complete dud is not something you want to risk. Not only will it be bad for your design business, it’ll be bad for your client’s, too. In addition to having to go back to the drawing board (and likely with a different designer), they might have to deal with bad press as a result of the flop.
With MVPs, that is much less likely to happen.
Just as an MVP gives you the time to reconnect with users, it will give you the chance to get to know your clients better. Speaking from personal experience in design and writing, my best client relationships and most successful outcomes have always come from long-term relationships.
One of the reasons why some clients and designers have so much friction in the beginning is because there’s very little that the relationship is built on. Even if you were referred by someone they know, any misstep along the way, any hesitation in your approach or any deviation from their expectations could lead your client to distrust you.
Over time, though, your client won’t feel the need to question or doubt you. Because you’ll know their product inside and out. You’ll be one step ahead at all times. You’ll probably even know their users better than they do. But this is only possible if you’re developing an MVP and taking time to carefully add to the product, measure your KPIs, and provide valuable insights and suggestions about where to go next.
When it comes to design, empathy enables you to build products that are designed for your target users. More importantly, it also allows you to create digital experiences that feel human and warm, not mechanical and cold. This can be a huge competitive advantage.
However, I don’t believe that the empathetic design process does enough to maximize the effect that empathy has on digital product design.
I think that using the empathetic design process to develop MVPs, on the other hand, does. In addition to building truly human-centered products, MVP design gives you the opportunity to really get to know your users and your clients—something that can greatly affect the outcome of the product.
A former project manager and web design agency manager, Suzanne Scacca now writes about the changing landscape of design, development and software.
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