How to be an Empathic Web Designer

“A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.” – Douglas Adams

Part of being a web designer is trying to understand and make sense of how people are using your design. Therefore, being empathic, or having the ability to share and understand the feelings of another, is a valuable trait to have. The more empathic you are, the more you can understand how people are using your design, how they think and feel about it, and what you need to do to make it great.

But how do you become empathic? What if you’re not naturally an empathic person? Here are a few things I try to keep in mind when I feel like I’m getting too far away from the people I design for.

Keep an open mind

It is a great irony that the people who claim to have open minds probably have closed ones, and the people who fear most a closed mind probably have the most open ones. But fear in this case is an enabler, as it allows the designer to keep up their energy and watchfulness for something new, something they didn’t understand before, something that is key to the success of their design. Once you have everything figured out, it’s time to stop designing.

“A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.” – Douglas Adams

Part of being a web designer is trying to understand and make sense of how people are using your design. Therefore, being empathic, or having the ability to share and understand the feelings of another, is a valuable trait to have. The more empathic you are, the more you can understand how people are using your design, how they think and feel about it, and what you need to do to make it great.

But how do you become empathic? What if you’re not naturally an empathic person? Here are a few things I try to keep in mind when I feel like I’m getting too far away from the people I design for.

Keep an open mind

It is a great irony that the people who claim to have open minds probably have closed ones, and the people who fear most a closed mind probably have the most open ones. But fear in this case is an enabler, as it allows the designer to keep up their energy and watchfulness for something new, something they didn’t understand before, something that is key to the success of their design. Once you have everything figured out, it’s time to stop designing.

Realize that people make sense to themselves

No matter what people do, however irrational it may appear, they probably make sense to themselves. So even if they do something that seems completely off the wall, try to understand it, at least from their perspective and in their context. Often this has the effect of changing the way you see what you’re working on, not temporarily but permanently.

Take a partnership role

Too often we take an expert or specialist role in what we’re doing. This is normal, as it reinforces our need to be there. But if we can take a partnership role, especially with the people who we design for, then we open ourselves up to many more opportunities to learn. This is partly because we are more ready for it, and partly because most people like being in a partnership more than other types of relationships. One of the tricks of usability testing facilitation is to always talk in terms of partnership…as in “we need your help and together we can make this product better”.

Keep Truth as a Mistress

President James Garfield said “Truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.” I think he was referring to the difficulty that Truth sometimes has in getting into our head. We first observe to fit what we see into what we know, and if it doesn’t fit then we have a choice. We either accept something new or we dismiss it. The more we accept Truth, the easier it is to accept the idiosyncrasies of others, and therefore become more empathic toward them.

Everybody has a story to tell

I’ve got a friend who is as quiet as a mouse. In public situations he rarely says a word. He would probably be horrible to try to design for because he doesn’t say much at all. Getting feedback or insight from him would be like pulling teeth. But once you accept that and let him unfold as he wants to, he becomes an entirely different person. He’s got a story, and an interesting one, and I think most people do, too. Life is interesting! Even if it doesn’t look like it at first.

Record things you don’t understand

One of our unfortunate tendencies in life is to dismiss things we don’t understand. We ignore them because we can’t figure them out at the moment. This, however, is the wrong move. Instead, we should take note of them, write them down and perhaps come back to them later. If we accept that there are things outside of our understanding, then we become more empathic to those who have a different view of the world.

Published: September 12th, 2007

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