Why Empathy Fails in UX Design

When I was 21 I started my first real job in the oil industry. I was a translator at a big international project — construction of a refinery plant. During the first few days at the plant, I was just following my more experienced colleague, watching him working and familiarizing myself with the job.

This was when I learned my first user experience lesson.

He was translating for the area manager and the plant operators. The manager said: “When you guys have free time today, could you maybe go check out that new pump we just installed?”

My colleague translated: “After you finish the walk down and before lunch, please go to that new pump and check it out”.

I was shocked. This was the guy who was supposed to mentor me! He couldn’t even translate properly!

During my time in college, we were told over and over again that translation must be as precise and as close to the original as possible. What did he think he was doing?

It what exactly what I asked him after that meeting. He smiled:

“I know these guys, I’ve been working with them for two years now.

They are from a culture completely different than our manager’s. He thinks they will find the time to do him the favor of checking out the pump.

They think that they never have any free time and “could you maybe” kind of tasks can be easily ignored. So I translate in such a way that they understand: he wants to have the pump checked ASAP. Because that’s what he actually wants”.

Wow. Well that was empathy.

Turned out the whole translation career was a rollercoaster of empathy. Understanding and translating words wouldn’t do it. As a good translator I had to read between the lines and make sure that the receivers get exactly the message they are supposed to get.

I also learned that mere understanding that “empathy is important” and that “we must be empathetic towards the people for who we translate” was quite useless. Just because you understand the importance of empathy, it doesn’t mean you can exercise it.

To be effectively empathic at work one needs to understand what is blocking his or her empathy, and be very humble and honest about it. It’s easy to think of yourself: “I’m empathetic”. It’s easy to deliver ardent keynotes on the importance of empathy.

It’s not easy to effectively do empathy.

I will highlight just a few things that may be in the way of using empathy at work:

  1. Projections

“Because I’m a mom, I can be empathetic about how other moms feel”. No. As humans we tend to project our emotional states and experiences on other people. But in reality just because a person has some similar circumstances in life, it doesn’t mean their emotions and behavior are the same as yours. A lot of entrepreneurs I know failed because of this mind-frame: “The product is going to be a success, because I would love to have something like this — and others will love it too”.

2. Cultural knowledge

Being empathetic doesn’t mean looking at another person with wide watering eyes and sighing deeply in unison. Sometimes empathy requires no emotions, but statistical data, cold-hearted observations and socio-historical knowledge. Behavior and preferences of people from different cultures can vary so much, there is no way you can just “feel it because you are an empathetic person”. Other cultures and their ways may be absolutely incomprehensible to you without solid knowledge about them.

3. Attachments

We become so attached to an idea, to a certain design, to a particular “truth” or lifestyle, that we measure everything through the prism of this attachment. We no longer explore the world — we are looking for what supports our subject of attachment and fighting everything that challenges it. Attachment causes cognitive bias, which makes it impossible to understand what people who don’t share your passion actually think, feel or prefer.

The list goes on forever, making humility and open-mindedness core professional requirements for UX Designers.

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