illustration and definition of the word empathy

The uncomfortable truth about empathy

A few weeks ago, we hosted a panel discussion on empathy, and its meaning for us as UX and CX professionals. Our guest, Stoilka Krasteva, along with a few other participants, including Susanne Schmidt-Rauch, shared insights from their research on the topic. In this article, we summarize the learnings from this extremely fruitful discussion. 

Few subjects in UX generate as much controversy as empathy. Don’t get me wrong, the UX community is filled with emotionally intelligent people who demonstrate a fair amount of empathy on a daily basis. However, many of us struggle with the seemingly abusive use of the word empathy and the distorted picture it creates of the UX skillset. Let me explain…

I am empathetic, hence I am a good fit for UX work

If you’re new to UX or you are considering a career transition into this field, you will for sure have encountered this term in countless job description, course curriculum, UX portfolio and of course as the initial step of the Design Thinking process. It is not surprising that you may assimilate it as one of, if not the most important attribute of a UX professional. By attribute, I refer to a character trait, a born capacity, that makes you stand out from other human beings.

There is however a huge issue with this term, coined as a UX skill: it is fundamentally incompatible. To make my point, I would like to use the very definition of a skill, as we can find it in the Merriam-Webster dictionary: a skill is “the ability to use one’s knowledge effectively and readily in execution or performance”. A skill (in a professional context) is something learned, trained, acquired, and not something one is born with. Furthermore, a skill can be demonstrated, applied, and often certified.

Now if you look-up the very definition of empathy in this dictionary, you will find that empathy, “was modeled on sympathy; it was coined in the early 20th century as a translation of the German Einfühlung (“feeling-in” or “feeling into”). First applied in contexts of philosophy, aesthetics, and psychology, empathy continues to have technical use in those fields that sympathy does not.”

As such, empathy refers to your ability, on an emotional level, to share the experience of another person. This may describe pretty well what you expect your role as a UXer to be: in fact, are we not supposed to understand what users of a product “feel, say and do”, as the famous UX artifact “empathy map” displays?


Empathy or the ability to know where the shoe pinches

At this stage, you may still be wondering what to do about your ability to connect on an emotional level with others. After all, this is definitely a very positive attribute of your personality and cannot harm your career.

What if I told you that your empathy is not universal, as in applying to literally anyone, and in fact very limited to your very own experience? To expose this argument, I would like to refer to this excellent example Stoilka run us through. It takes its reference in a German saying that says, translated to English “knowing where the shoe pinches”. This could be a good definition of empathy in a UX environment. Being an empathetic UXer, you would be perfectly able to “put yourself in the shoes of your users.” And so did Stoilka, who with her shoe size 38 (US 7.5), imagined fitting the shoes of men, wearing size 43 (US 10). This men may show signs of discomfort or even feel pain, wearing these shoes. How shall a woman with much smaller feet experience this **pain the same way? This is a very caricatural but very insightful image as it illustrates the issue with so-called empathy. Empathy is very much tight to your own ability to assimilate, apprehend and “feel” the same as the person you empathise with.

Now let’s take a more realistic experience: imagine you work as a UXR for a company developing an application used by patients and care professionals during cancer therapy. Following the previous definition of empathy, would you be able to perform without any previous experience of going through or administering such treatment?

The answer is: as a trained UXer will, relying both on a high level of emotional intelligence, a solid skill set and your trained ability to ask the right questions and to identify your own biases, you would most likely succeed building this bridge between care givers and care takers. And to do so, you would rely on another soft-skill, which may apply better to our work.


I know that I know nothing

Before we may experience something, we first need to understand it. To grasp the nature of an experience, we need to identify it — and to do so, we need to look for it, not in the obvious, not in the statement, but in the realm of the latent, unexpressed and uncovered. We need to go beyond our simple understanding to dive into the context of our users, to embrace their reality and most importantly to have the desire to know. This is one of the definition of “curiosity”. This is what triggers us, UXers, to go beyond the obvious, to dig beyond the expressed, to form a clear understanding of motivations, or lack thereof, of frustrations and pains, in other words of what triggers the experience. We do not mean to feel alike, we are looking forward to understand how our users get to feel in a certain way. Then and only then, can we use our translation skills to make these insights actionable for our teams.


Lost in translation — empathy and culture

Nothing predestinated me to a career in UX a priori. I was trained in Applied Foreign Languages and Localisation. As a linguist, I learned early that the language we talk shapes the way we think and behave. My apparently unrelated language skills played a big role in my career transition as it allowed me to apply my knowledge of transcreation — the technic resulting in giving a word a translation that is coherent and relevant in the new language.

the spectrum of empathy by nn/g

When we look at the word empathy, we try to grasp a concept with a specific flavour, scope and lexical field. How does this translate to German? To French? One of the artifacts we used to guide our conversation was this article published by the Nn/g and more specifically the illustration “the Spectrum of Empathy”.

A quick research showed that in German, one translation spans throughout the spectrum: “Mitleid”, literally, “suffering with”. While in French, the word compassion may both be translated as sympathy or compassion.

diagram the lexical field of empathy

When it comes to words expressing emotions or the expression of them, languages may deliver very surprising results. It would be highly restrictive and inherently wrong to try to narrow down a word as rich as empathy to one and only definition, but it is our duty, as UXers, to frame this concept in a meaningful way. Our expertise relies on a scientific and empirical approach and while it is undeniable that one needs to truly be interested in human nature and to a certain extent to have deep sympathy for fellow human beings, we shall refrain from tarnishing our expertise by making it any less reliable and actionable.



If not empathetic then what?

Following this logic, and knowing that the first step in a recruitment process is a screening of the candidates’ skills and experience, you will understand that listing empathy as one of your skills makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible to relate to this “skill” in a meaningful way. What should your future employer expect from a highly empathetic person: will you systematically embody the users’ frustration, rage, or despair using the product? How shall this affect your own mood and most importantly, your ability to perform?

Using the word empathy too slightly, specifically referring to it as a UX skill, may be to your detrimental. Instead, we strongly recommend you to look into the meaning of empathy in our work as UX professionals, and to establish how you learned to systematically, and empirically make sense of users emotions, expressions of frustration, and issues, to extract meaningful and actionable insights for the product team.


Last but not least

This summary of our conversation does not aim at engaging anyone to scrape away the word empathy from their vocabulary. It is way more an invitation to reflection — and most importantly giving you insights into some common pitfalls, trying to embrace a jargon widely used in the UX scene. If you are a highly empathetic person, celebrate this ability and apply it wisely, specifically when dealing with products and users who may experience an extreme case of pain, frustration, and disappointment. Compassion fatigue is real and is not restricted to healthcare professionals. But this is the subject of another Fireside Talk. Stay tuned!

portrait of Marie-Aude Sourd-Ramos

Written by Marie-Aude Sourd-Ramos

User Experience Researcher with a background in Applied Foreign Languages, UX Strategist, and serial community builder. Founder of User Wizard UX Career Mentoring. Avid learner, hooked on great podcasts, keen on connecting with fellow UXers worldwide: happy to share a virtual or in-person coffee!

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