Your constantly-updated definition of Empathy and collection of topical content and literature

What is Empathy?

What is Empathy?

Empathy is the ability designers gain from research to understand users’ problems, needs and desires fully so that they can design the best solutions for users. Designers strive for empathy by deeply probing users’ worlds, to define their precise problems and then to ideate towards solutions that improve users’ lives.

“What makes us human is what is delightful.”

— Genevieve Bell, Anthropologist noted for cultural-practice-and-technological-development work

See why empathy is absolutely vital in design

Empathy – The Glow You Put in Your Users’ and Customers’ Hearts

To understand your users/customers fully, you must see and feel their worlds from their perspective. And to access these core vantage points, you’ll first need the right research methods. You want to gather reliable information from which you can distill your users’ essences, as personas, to take forward in your design process. In user-centered design, user experience (UX) design and elsewhere, you need empathy. It even has a themed stage in the design thinking process: Empathize.

Your biggest challenge is to dig deep into your users’/customers’ subconscious; they can’t fully explain their precise needs. Designing for the human world is tricky, especially when users/customers access brands across many touchpoints and channels (e.g., online). In service design, ethnography is key to understanding their habits, motivations, pain points, values and whatever else influences what they think, feel, say and do on their user journeys. In ethnographic field studies, you observe what these users/customers do. Four methods are:

  • Shadowing – following users/customers around to get a day-in-the-life-of feel of what they experience.

  • Unstructured/Semi-structured Interviews – exploring hard-to-reach areas of their behavior in a naturalistic atmosphere, not systematically questioning them. This “hanging out” with them yields more honest, accurate insights. It’s usually better to conduct semi-structured interviews, strung loosely around an “areas-to-cover” framework in a discussion guide.

  • Diary Studies – letting users self-report. As with surveys, you rely on users to record things for you. Unlike surveys, diary studies help to capture “after-effects” over (typically) a 1-to-2-week period. Note: diary studies alone can’t reveal pain points effectively; they’re best combined with interviews.

  • Video Ethnography – video-recording enough material of participants in their environment as users/customers to gather insights about them.


Photo by Kampus Production from Pexels.

How to Discover What Users Really Want

It’s best to remain informal and open-minded.

  1. Here’s what to consider for an ethnographic study where you directly observe users interacting with a service (e.g., booking short-stay accommodation):

  • Introduction – Thank them and briefly explain your research’s purpose.

  • Context Look around and note your users’ surroundings.

  • Note/observe/ask Encourage them to continue their activities as though you weren’t there, letting you observe and ask as few questions as possible. When you do ask questions, ensure they’re open-ended and encourage more observations (e.g., “How?”).

  • Touchpoints  & Channels – Pay attention to the touchpoints and service channels your users interact with (e.g., paying for room/property bookings by phone). 

  • Tools – Note which tools these customers use throughout their journey.

  • Familiarity with Domain/Task Note how comfortable they are with the various tools and tasks they use/perform.

  • Service Artifacts Pay attention to the artifacts that are important throughout the service experience between the customers’ various touchpoints:

    • Physical items

    • Cognitive constructs (e.g., the customer’s changing understanding of the steps involved)

    • Social or emotional elements (e.g., hunting for a lockbox in an unfamiliar street)

  • Disconnects Notice these, which happen anytime customers experience a problem with the service (e.g., they can’t access the accommodation/property).

  • Needed ecosystem support Watch for the points in the service where support from the backstage of the service is needed (e.g., the service-providing organization/agency must contact the landlord if the customer can’t).

  • Wrap-up – Thank them at the end of the session and answer any relevant questions they have.

  1. For Semi-structured interviews, order and ask your questions properly, stringing them loosely in a discussion guide featuring the following types of questions:

  • Introductory – e.g., “What was it like the last time you…?”

  • Follow-up – on what they’ve just said.

  • Probing – ask them to give an example/explain something.

  • Specifying – if their descriptions are too general.

  • Direct – to introduce topics, etc.

  • Indirect – if you sense a direct question might lead the user, etc. 

  • Structuring – to get back on-topic, etc.

  • Interpreting – to confirm you’ve understood the previous answer correctly.

    Also, let silence help the user/customer give you honest, unpressured answers.

From your findings, you can now create personas, empathy maps and user journey maps (image below) / customer journey maps.  


  • Service safaris are a great way to go into the field to see what users experience.

  • Brainstorming with your team can help reveal the right, open-ended questions to ask users.

  • Engage with extreme users – If you can find and interview users who face greater challenges, you’ll find the full scope of problems which all users can encounter.

  • Find effective analogies to draw parallels between users’ problems and problems in other fields, to find further insights.

  • Bodystorming – Wearing equipment gives you first-hand experience of what your users encounter in their environment (e.g., goggles to simulate vision problems).

Overall, remember: what users/customers do and what they say they do are two different things.


© Yu Siang and Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0

Learn More about Empathy

Take our Service Design course: https://www.interaction-design.org/courses/service-design-how-to-design-integrated-service-experiences

Find invaluable insights into empathy here: https://uxplanet.org/empathy-in-ux-design-what-it -is-and-why-its-important-3f6a8919ef10

Here’s a deep-dive view of empathy:https://uxmag.com/articles/what-is-empathy

Literature on Empathy

Here’s the entire UX literature on Empathy by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Empathy

Take a deep dive into Empathy with our course User Experience: The Beginner’s Guide .

User experience, or UX, has been a buzzword since about 2005, and according to tech research firm Gartner, the focus on digital experience is no longer limited to digital-born companies anymore. Chances are, you’ve heard of the term, or even have it on your portfolio. But, like most of us, there’s also a good chance that you sometimes feel unsure of what the term “user experience” actually covers.

[User experience] is used by people to say, Im a user experience designer, I design websites, or I design apps. [] and they think the experience is that simple device, the website, or the app, or who knows what. No! Its everythingits the way you experience the world, its the way you experience your life, its the way you experience the service. Or, yeah, an app or a computer system. But its a system thats everything.

Don Norman, pioneer and inventor of the term user experience”, in an interview with NNGroup

As indicated by Don Norman, User Experience is an umbrella term that covers a number of different areas. When you work with user experience, it’s crucial to have a good understanding of what those areas are so that you know what tools are available to you.

Throughout this course, you will gain a thorough understanding of the various design principles that come together to create a user’s experience when using a product or service. As you proceed, you’ll learn the value user experience design brings to a project, and what areas you must consider when you want to design great user experiences. Because user experience is an evolving term, we can’t give you a definition of ‘user experience’ to end all discussions, but we will provide you with a solid understanding of the different aspects of user experience, so it becomes clear in your mind what is involved in creating great UX designs.

If you are new to the Interaction Design Foundation, this course is a great place to start because it brings together materials from many of our other courses. This provides you with both an excellent introduction to user experience and with a preview of the courses we have to offer to help you develop your future career. After each lesson, we will introduce you to the courses you can take if a specific topic has caught your attention. That way, you’ll find it easy to continue your learning journey.

All Literature

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