Topic: “empathy”

The empathy paradox

Empathy is so hot right now.

Whether you’re a user experience professional, visual designer, marketer, developer, empathy is the new skill to have. Unfortunately, like most buzz words that become jargon, the value of the word is being lost in the noise.

What really is empathy? The first definition that may likely come to mind is “the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.” Much like its cousins, sympathy and mindfulness, its a skill that requires emotional intelligence and awareness.

On the surface, it makes a lot of sense. By empathizing with our users (clients, colleagues, etc), we are able to create more meaningful experiences, and therefore better designed products. However, there’s a paradox to empathy: The more we think we know another’s needs, the less effort we make to find out what their real needs are.


Empathetic Design is Honest Design

Content first. User experience design. These terms are tossed around daily by eager commentators.

The new trend of “flat design” has been founded on the premise that realistic elements on a web page diminish the experience for the user by presenting a dishonest representation of what the page presents: digital content. Or, as opined by the good folks at Layer Vault who take distinction for naming the trend,

designing honestly means recognizing that things you can do with screens and input devices can’t be done with physical objects — more importantly that we shouldn’t try copying them.

This distinction is well-meant, but fallacious. In attempting to justify their decision to break away from the trends of unnecessary realism and skeuomorphism, the writer asserts that realistic design is dishonest. It is not. When done incorrectly, realistic design is bad design. When done correctly, it translates lines of code into a rich experience for the user, one where actions are intuitive, interfaces are beautiful and interactive, and content communicates on a level unobtainable by mere text. When done correctly, it is honest.