restaurant server and patrons

Is Empathy Just a UX Buzzword?

By ICS UX Design Team


Ok, perhaps I should elaborate.

If you were to pick any user experience (UX) blog right now and run a search, you’ll see one word repeated ad nauseum: empathy. This makes complete sense, as empathy really does get at the heart of what a UX designer does. (Although “empathy” in this sense relates to the user, clients are users as well, and in my opinion, the most important since they are the ones signing off on your design).

Problem is, we often devalue or overlook the client’s opinion in defense of our own — which is the opposite of empathy!

This all reminds me of my many years in the restaurant industry. So let’s do a thought experiment and put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. (See what I did there?) Here's the scenario: You’re out to a nice dinner and you want to order a salad, but prefer to have strawberries instead of the blueberries it comes with. The server says that's not a problem. But when your salad arrives, it comes with those unwanted blueberries. Either your request was forgotten or it was ignored.

Either way, it feels like no one cared about you or the small-but-essential details. You could send the salad back, you could cause a ruckus or you could just act like all is well and never mention it. The truth is most restaurant patrons would keep quiet. And clients tend to do the same. For the server, this oversight could mean a smaller tip. As designers, it could cost us the client.

But, does the server care? SHOULD the server care? Absolutely. Not because of the tip, but in a small way because it's their job to care. And in a much bigger way because they are a human being.

Whether we like it or not, as designers we are in the service industry. When simplified, our job description is pretty much “give the client what they want.” And since we are expecting most clients won’t let you know when you have messed up, beyond simply not returning your emails, you may never even know that you failed to do your job.

Having empathy itself is not very difficult, and it really does make doing your job as a designer easier. The most effective and prosperous designers not only master their craft, but they also truly care about their clients. (The same is true of servers.)

But if you’re on the fence about whether to "waste" all that caring on your clients, here are some ways in which being truly empathetic can help you:

Fewer Iterations

If we just listened more closely to the things our clients said, we wouldn’t need to do so much of the back and forth. They are busy, and your design is likely only one of a million other things they are balancing at that time. We can’t all be Paula Scher with the fabled Citibank napkin, and most of our designs (and likely her designs, too) don’t come along that quickly. However, if you could send something to your clients that made it clear you listened to them right from the start, it would make the whole process faster.

Fewer Headaches

Designing can be pretty stressful. Yeah, it’s one of the best “jobs” in the world (let’s be realistic, it totally isn’t a job. It’s more like arts and crafts with a paycheck), but the constant problem solving weighs on our psyche. One of the things I constantly tell my clients is that my ideas usually come from them, and they shouldn’t hold back from just throwing things out there. Our job is to make their vision come true, not ours. Once we start caring about the vision they have, then we remove a bunch of variables.

Happier Clients

Like the guest at the restaurant, a client that feels like they were listened to and cared for will be happier than one who feels like they were just a passing thought. Design is not cheap, and for our clients it’s kind of a scary relationship. Many of them are not creatives, meaning they rely on data and proven results for most of their decisions. But with us, we are creating something arbitrarily measured. Even with all of the UX research, products still fail, experiences still need to be improved. Making that process easier, feeling like someone has their back, will make a client happier.

Repeat Clients

Getting new clients is expensive. Keeping a loyal client willing to return time and again for new projects is (comparatively) much cheaper. Everyone has their go-to person. Ask someone for a mechanic recommendation or a general contractor and you'll no doubt hear "sure, I've got a guy." (Or woman. This blog is a sexism-free-zone.) This is all driven by an emotional feeling that the person “has your back.” Capitalize on that.

The Takeaway

Unless you're Dexter Morgan (the murderous television character; no offense to actual Dexter Morgans out there), you do have the ability to care. We may be hired for our expertise as designers, but our clients are experts in their business. If I had a dollar for every time I thought a client was making a terrible decision and then ended up having to concede I was wrong…well, I’d still be a designer, but I’d probably have some cooler sneakers.

Point is, we can still defend our design decisions while showing that we were truly listening to our client. In my opinion, the end goal for designers is an effective product that looks good. The end goal for the client is a product that works and (usually) brings in a profit. These are inherently different goals, so it’s important to understand and relate in order to create an effective design that actually sees the light of day.

So, is empathy just a UX buzzword? I think so. Still, if we truly care a little bit more about our clients, we can turn it into a philosophy. (And if you are Dexter Morgan, then I know nothing!)

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