Empathy and Sympathy

What is the difference between empathy and sympathy and why does it matter to building a great product or service?

Empathy Definition: the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
In English: Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.

This should not be confused with sympathy.  To sympathize is to feel or express compassion, as for another’s suffering; commiserate.

In other words, Empathy is 1st person; you can actually feel the emotions and reactions of the other point of view.  Sympathy is 3rd person; you don’t lose your perspective, and look at the other person from the outside.

This is a subtle but powerful distinction.  Designers are supposed to empathize, not sympathize.  You shouldn’t just watch users, see their pain and try to fix it.  You have to put yourselves into their positions.  You have to be a three-dimensional human being, not just a caricature.

I was interviewing a junior designer yesterday and we talked alot about this.  In several examples, he had made assumptions of what you “have to do”.

  • Putting the Email field in a form twice
  • Wearing a suit to an interview
  • Changing a picture on his website to be more “appropriate”, but less interesting

In each case, someone told him, “You can’t do that.  You have to…”.  These people were well intentioned, but unfortunately, they were flat out wrong.  Most of the people in the world make these terrible assumptions.  Let’s examine one in particular.

He was told, “You have to wear a suit to an interview.”  The problem with that statement is that it is totally without any empathy of people or examination of the situation.  He should have sat down and said, “Who will I be meeting with?  What are their expectations?  How can I make them think I am great?  How should I dress to make them think I am great?  What is the overall context and how would a real human being react in that situation.”

Had he done this exercise, he would have instantly realized that he was interviewing for a designer position at an advertising software company in California’s silicon valley.  He would have realized he was going to be meeting with other designers.  He would have dressed smart/stylish, but not like he was going to a funeral.  He would have dressed up, but in a more context appropriate way.

We walked through his experience at Nordstroms where he bought the tie and suit.  He clearly was torn.  He thought everyone was wrong, but he did it anyway.  He assumed people knew what they were saying.

The lesson here is that Empathy is the key ingredient to UX Design.  You can’t just accept what other people say without thinking about it.  You have to examine the details and use empathy to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.  When you do that, you will make much better decisions about your product or service.

To the designers credit, he turned it into a clever joke and illustrated himself with a suit.

Love is the goal.  Loving a product or service or person.  That can’t happen if you are like everyone else.  No one loves the product that looks like every other product.  Empathize with your audience and figure out where the sweet spot lies.

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