How Design Empathy Impacts the Development Process

by JT Mudge, a solutions expert at productOps with over 20 years of agency experience.

If computers express themselves in ones and zeros, then humans are everything in between. Most of us like to think we behave logically, but the truth is we are complex. More often than not our emotions greatly impact our decision making.

Designing for emotional humans can be a daunting task. Most of the time as designers we approach this by simplifying the problem and finding ways to group users together into easily identifiable traits. If only it were that easy.

Understanding and Responding to Emotion

Why do we care about human emotion so much when we design? Because of how strongly it affects human behavior. Most of what we do, and how we feel about it, is based on our emotional state while interacting.

We overwhelmingly react based on our ever changing emotions. For example, you might get an email from your boss with an urgent subject line. How you react emotionally to that same email may depend heavily on whether you are at work or you just woke up and have not yet had your morning caffeine fix.

First, What is Design?

Design is not simply what you “see” in front of you. It encompasses all aspects of what we do at productOps including development, architecture, physical interactions, and UI. Product managers, graphic designers, and developers all work with the same idea - how to put the user at the center of what we do and create a successful product or experience.

Designing with the user in mind is nothing new. User experience has grown rapidly as a discipline for a reason. But how do we focus on the user to create a successful experience? We believe that at the heart of designing for the user is understanding who the user is and their current state of mind. We need to not only get inside their thoughts but their feelings as well. What is their emotional state at the time they are engaging?

Design Thinking - A Quick Primer

In order to better understand the importance of human emotion in design thinking, it is good to have a quick primer on how we approach user centered design.

  1. Empathize - Get a clear understanding of the human needs.
  2. Define - Take what we learn and define the problem and key requirements.
  3. Design / Workshop - The creative thinking phase. Start to design a solution. Lots of ideas and collaboration.
  4. Develop / Prototype - Rapidly develop the ideas into something that can be tested. Do not just rely on one solution, develop multiple quick prototypes to see which is best.
  5. Test - Does the solution meet the needs of the user?

Empathizing with the user is not only at the start of the process, but it is at the very core of our entire development. When we do things like testing, we are not simply determining if the product works without bugs, we are testing how the user reacts and feels.

Empathy at the Heart of Design

The key to a successful product is our ability to empathize with the user.  When we put emotion at the core of our design thinking, amazing things start to happen. What emotional state is the user in at the point of engagement? How does the experience then make them change or reinforce their current feelings? It is not enough to only “think” like the user, but to anticipate how they will feel.

Take the example of designing a wellness app to help treat patients with bipolar disorder. It is important that the care provider gets consistent and relevant data. However, the emotional state of the user can change dramatically from day to day. When a patient is feeling depressed, they may need extra motivation to engage with the app. On more manic days, the patient may want to take surveys multiple times and provide extra details to answers.

Design / Develop / Test

While empathy is great, to measure the emotional impact there’s really no substitute for a prototype. It is important to rapidly ideate, develop, and test to see how the user reacts to the experience.

The first place to start is with the design and development team. How do they feel about the prototype when testing? How do they imagine the user feeling? Is there an easy way for them to test and report this feedback?  

There is a great story of a brand that built a large three story indoor video wall. It looked amazing and they wanted to put high res content of the city on it. They built a lab with a smaller version and had several agencies developing high resolution videos. When the video wall was ready, the agencies tested their content on the wall. There were people on each floor watching.

The most anticipated video was an aerial shot of the city slowly spinning at 60 fps. It looked amazing in the lab. However, after 5 seconds of showing it in the store it was apparent that there was no way that the video could be allowed to go public. Technically it was flawless, but as soon as the people on the second and third floors saw the spinning city, they grabbed for the balcony rails and one person was almost physically ill. Not the desired effect that the brand was hoping for.

Even with constant designing and testing, failures like the city video will happen. Luckily the brand and agencies learned quickly from the users’ reactions and were able to make changes before the store opened. They were able to take what they learned and begin to feel what the users felt in the store from different floors.

Designing a Better World

As designers, we are responsible for how the experiences we create make others feel. When we have a positive experience we are more likely to carry that emotion to the rest of what we do.

By putting user emotion at the core of our design process we believe we create better experiences for our users and in turn have more dramatic positive effects on their behaviors.