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"ACM SIGCHI WWW Human Factors (Open Discussion)" <[log in to unmask]>
Elan Freydenson <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 9 Nov 1999 00:02:01 -0500
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Elan Freydenson <[log in to unmask]>
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You are correct. Empathy is a necessary part of any good interaction
designer. Yet, I believe it can be learned, or rather, developed.
Empathy (simply put) is the ability to share in other's thoughts or
feelings. I think everybody can be empathetic. In this case, anybody (a
designer) who has used a computer can empathize with someone else (a
user) that has used (read: struggled with) a computer.

One difference between anybody and a great interaction designer is how
far empathy has been developed. A great designer can get into the head
and heart of a user. Practically though, when it comes to hiring, you
probably want somebody that has already developed this part of

One of the reasons I like working with great designers or usability
professionals is because their empathy extends beyond their work. Good
designers (and good people) have a genuine concern for others, be it
users, coworkers or strangers.

If you can find evidence of empathy in your interviewees' words and
actions, then they already have developed or will have an easier time
developing the necessary level of empathy to be a good designer.

With regard to usability engineering, you are dead on and totally wrong.
:) Yes, if you reduce usability engineering to keeping statistics, there
is little empathy and understanding. It's like measuring the whole
success of a company by simply looking at it's balance sheet. Doing so
forces you to lose the human elements (morale, purpose, potential and

But user abstractions such as heuristics can actually enhance empathy
and understanding. They provide models of understanding users (people)
and often they help designers in empathizing. However, using heuristics,
keeping statistics and so on, doesn't mean empathy is involved. They are
just tools developed to enable (yet sometimes prevent) empathy with
users. But, to generalize that usability engineers "don't endeavor to
truly empathize with the user" isn't right. Although, sometimes empathy
is lost when the focus is on the numbers or methods.

- Elan

Peter said:
I posted a brief thoughtpiece on empathy in interaction design to my
personal website, but I realized that not only do I not have the answer,
I don't even know the question. So I'm posting it here, 'cause I'd like
to hear what the community has to say around this issue. It also pretty
strongly disses Usability As Usual, and I'd like to know if folks think
I'm way off base...

A while back, a fellow information architect and I were discussing
whether a mutual acquaintance could do the type work we do. We agreed
that while he was a very talented designer and writer, a practiced
aesthete, he lacked an essential quality that any user advocate must
have--empathy. A successful interaction designer has to not simply
suppress his own personality, but must eagerly endeavor to understand
the needs, desires, and methods of his potential users. For better or
worse, empathy is not a trainable skill--you either have it or you

And while this need for empathy seems obvious, I've never seen it
discussed in anything I've read on user-centered design. As someone in
the process of hiring interaction designers, I'd love to have an empathy
test I could give potential candidates, not that I'd know where to start
in developing such a thing.

Continuing this thoughtwander, what frustrates me so much about typical
usability engineering is a lack of empathy. Users aren't seen as people,
but as subjects, as an Other. Usability engineers don't endeavor to
truly empathize with the user's needs and desires. Instead they use
accepted methodology (time-to-completion studies, think-aloud user
tests, heuristic evaluation) to create an abstract model of the user
that neglects the audience's true humanity.

Peter Merholz, Creative Director,
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