January 24, 2022
3 mins

Empathy : story of a UX buzz word

« To do UX, you need to be empathic. »

On every resume I learnt since 2 years, I saw "empathy". On every conference I have been participating, I heard "empathy". This not possible anymore. This is why it's an issue.

Fulfill a need to belong

Because the term of "empathy" is overused, we have lost its meaning. Everything is now empathy. But it doesn't matter. What matters is the punchline. The goal is to show that you know it. If you say it, you are from the community and we trust you. It's a common schema: using a word to be part of the group (i.e UX community in this case). I say so I am (in the group).

However, what is bad, is that the more UX is popular the more the use of this kind of word increases. UX evolves into a well branded practice that is relying on the saying vs. the doing. Another well known schema.

Do the empathy

Empathy is a posture (to be). But what we mean with empathy is behaviour, gesture (to do). However, the use of empathy in every discussions is the opposite manual for the one who wants to know how to do the empathy. I think about all the techniques and methods that allow Designers to understand their users. Two world are competing here: the be-world vs. the do-world.

I love to give deeper meanings of what is a word, so let's speak about empathy and start to switch from buzzword to concrete questions : what are the techniques to empathize with users? How do we do? What are the different postures to avoid and the ones you need to focus on to feel a true connection with users. How to do that concretely?

At the end, it's these kind of questions that allow us to do the best work we can. No?

So what is empathy?

It was not possible to write about empathy without take a short time to explain what it is.

Empathy includes two dimensions : the cognitive dimension and the emotional dimensions. In other words, empathy is our ability to understand and to feel people we face. It's because the existing of this both dimensions that the empathy is powerful.

On one hand, understand others means be able to absorb their speech, understand their history (logos). This step is already a good way to empathize. Empathy requires focus, even devotion. Structure a thought and facts that are not ours, to understand a different version of the world story, is painful and requires effort. 

On the other hand, we usuallt think that empathy is feeling what people feel. However, it's never happening as we all have a cultural, historical and psychological specific and different background. For me, the main goal of empathy is not to feel what others feel but understand the reasons why they are thinking as they do.

Marshall B. Rosenberg quote is interesting to meditate:

« Empathy is choose to be be in connection with another person, not feeling the same thing as she feels. »