Video: Empathy and User-centered Design

Here’s a short talk I gave at WordCamp London 2015 on the topic of empathy and user-centered design. Reblogging from the vault of yesteryear since I haven’t published it previously.

The big difference between good and bad designers (and developers, copywriters—all of us) is how they handle people struggling with their design. In this lightning session Lance will argue why empathy is important to beautiful, engaging, and useful products.

View full-screen video starting at 17:04 minute mark, and read the description on

Full text below.

What do you think makes a design truly great, or an amazing product or experience? The decorative look, the aesthetics? How fast it works, how responsive it is to an input or command? Well-structured content? How it communicates an author’s voice, with a message that’s crystal clear?

All of these matter, of course. I’d like to argue, however, that empathy is a key ingredient—often left out of this list.

What is empathy? It’s the ability to understand and share the feelings of others.

I wanted to talk about this because it’s something I’m not strong at myself. I sometimes have difficulty understanding why people don’t “get it” when they are using something I made. It can be really frustrating watch people struggle with it. Humbling, too.

If I design for people, I should strive to practice empathy in everything I do.

Other ways to describe this include contextual, experience-driven, human-centered, or even user-centered design. I’m using “design” in a very broad sense, to include programming, UI work, even copywriting. A better phrase for this concept might would be “things you make.”

Better said: if I make things for people, I should practice empathy in everything I make.

People should never feel like a failure when using technology. Like the customer, the user is always right. If software crashes, it is the software designer’s fault. If someone can’t find something on a web site, it is the web designer’s fault… The big difference between good and bad designers is how they handle people struggling with their design. Technology serves humans. Humans do not serve technology. —Joshua Porter (interface designer & writer at

That’s great, Lance. We agree we should use more empathy. But how do you put it into practice?

Here are a few ideas.

  1. Observe. Everybody has a interesting story to tell. Listen! Be respectful. Build trust and credibility: you are a partner with the person, not an adversary.
  2. Capture data. Record everything, especially tracking the things you don’t understand. Use any and all tools you can think of.
  3. Reflect and analyze. Ask why, dig deeper to understand the cues and clues given by the other person. Often people cannot express obstacles, or don’t even know they exist.
  4. Take action. Solve the problems you find, and make your product better.

Bottom line: empathy is important to beautiful, engaging, and useful products. Things that we make.

I hope this inspires you to design with empathy, too.

Published by

Lance Willett

My name is Lance, I am a blogger, product manager, software developer, and business executive creating high-quality, engaging, and customer-centered experiences for people online. México-born.

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