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

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 Service Design: How to Design Integrated Service Experiences .

Services are everywhere! When you get a new passport, order a pizza or make a reservation on AirBnB, you're engaging with services. How those services are designed is crucial to whether they provide a pleasant experience or an exasperating one. The experience of a service is essential to its success or failure no matter if your goal is to gain and retain customers for your app or to design an efficient waiting system for a doctor’s office.

In a service design process, you use an in-depth understanding of the business and its customers to ensure that all the touchpoints of your service are perfect and, just as importantly, that your organization can deliver a great service experience every time. It’s not just about designing the customer interactions; you also need to design the entire ecosystem surrounding those interactions.

In this course, you’ll learn how to go through a robust service design process and which methods to use at each step along the way. You’ll also learn how to create a service design culture in your organization and set up a service design team. We’ll provide you with lots of case studies to learn from as well as interviews with top designers in the field. For each practical method, you’ll get downloadable templates that guide you on how to use the methods in your own work.

This course contains a series of practical exercises that build on one another to create a complete service design project. The exercises are optional, but you’ll get invaluable hands-on experience with the methods you encounter in this course if you complete them, because they will teach you to take your first steps as a service designer. What’s equally important is that you can use your work as a case study for your portfolio to showcase your abilities to future employers! A portfolio is essential if you want to step into or move ahead in a career in service design.

Your primary instructor in the course is Frank Spillers. Frank is CXO of award-winning design agency Experience Dynamics and a service design expert who has consulted with companies all over the world. Much of the written learning material also comes from John Zimmerman and Jodi Forlizzi, both Professors in Human-Computer Interaction at Carnegie Mellon University and highly influential in establishing design research as we know it today.

You’ll earn a verifiable and industry-trusted Course Certificate once you complete the course. You can highlight it on your resume, CV, LinkedIn profile or on your website.

All Literature

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