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As experience shows, UX experts show sympathy rather than empathy for their users.

It is our responsibility as UX experts to speak up for our users. We must comprehend them in order to do it. Understanding our users requires developing empathy for the people who use the goods and services we produce.

Many teams unintentionally practice pity in an effort to foster understanding. Teams frequently use compassion and empathy wrongly since they don’t mean the same thing, despite the fact that they do. Due to their perplexity, they have a profound gap in their understanding and are unable to meet actual human needs.

In this article we aim to get you to think about your existing user experience (UX) practices. Are you unwittingly using sympathy and pity as opposed to empathy?

What Is Sympathy?

Recognition of another person’s pain is the definition of sympathy.

The response to another person’s suffering or misfortune is frequently expressed as sorrow or pity. In contrast to empathy, there is still a sense of separation between you and the other person, and you do not personally relate to or anticipate sharing their hardship. Even while you are aware that some users have issues, you do not imagine yourself experiencing those issues (and you certainly do not share those issues now).

Sympathy in UX is restricted to recognizing that users are going through a challenging situation, task, or trip. It is not necessary to put ourselves in our users’ situations and experience their suffering or dissatisfaction in order to be sympathetic to them. For instance, when creating a website that is accessible for those who are blind, we might show empathy by acknowledging their potential difficulties:

  • If you can’t view the infographics, it will be difficult to read the information.
  • This typeface is fairly light and small. An older reader could find it challenging to read.
  • Using a screen reader to navigate this website would be challenging.

It’s true that having some empathy is preferable to none. For instance, it is preferable to feel pity for users who lack technical proficiency than to mock them for their flaws. However, empowering people rather than being pleasant to them is design’s real objective. For instance, this is the reason we don’t advise using lengthy error messages that express our regret for a mistake. Instead, we propose that error notifications enable users to immediately fix the issue and continue.

Empathy: What Is It?

Beyond pity, empathy is a more nuanced emotion.

Understanding, reflecting, and ultimately sharing the feelings, needs, and motives of another individual is empathy.

Empathy helps us comprehend our users’ hopes, fears, capabilities, limitations, justifications, and ambitions in addition to their current problems. It enables us to go deeply into our comprehension of the user and develop solutions that will not only meet a demand but also significantly enhance the lives of our users by removing any needless suffering or friction. A more effective way to demonstrate empathy is to use a screen reader while wearing blinders to perform a job on your own website.

“I’m having trouble navigating the website.”

“I had underestimated how difficult this would be.”

“I will fight for the necessary adjustments to be made.”

The Empathy Spectrum

The boundary between sympathy and empathy is not clearly defined. The easiest way to visualize the relationship between the two is as a spectrum, with compassion (the more embodied and linked version of empathy) at one end and pity (the most detached and abstracted version of sympathy) at the other.

Pity, sympathy, empathy, and compassion are all parts of the empathy continuum. While empathy and compassion demand work to understand and participation to effect change, pity and sympathy require little to no effort or comprehension.

Pity is merely having sympathy for someone else. You don’t like their sad condition, and perhaps you’ll even take action to change it, but largely you’ll do it to get rid of your own negative emotions.

Compassion, on the other hand, is the emotion that allows you to relate to users more as independent agents than as objects. When we refer to users as “actors” in this context, we imply that we acknowledge that they have their own goals, needs, and desires and that they are behaving in accordance with those goals rather than what we believe they should do or desire. As a result, we don’t impose our priorities or preferences on the users, as doing so would objectify them in a way that is contrary to sympathy. The ability to understand another person’s thoughts or feelings can compel us to take action in order to improve that person’s condition. This is known as compassion.

How to Show Empathy in User Experience

Employ qualitative research techniques.

User research is the first step in empathizing with users in UX. In order to really engage in research, we must put aside our egos and preconceptions. We can delve deeper into user behaviors, motives, and concerns using qualitative techniques including user interviews, cognitive mapping, and diary research.

Use open-ended questions. Users frequently disclose startling mental models, problem-solving techniques, hopes, and concerns when you ask them to describe something to you. For instance:

“What brings you joy?” rather than “Are you happy?”

“What impact has your family had on you?” instead of “How close are you to your family?”

“What would strengthen you?” rather than “Tell me about your vulnerabilities.”

As you undertake research, be empathic. Remember that you never know what someone is going through or what can bring up a memory or be challenging for them.

Find a variety of users

Include accessibility in your research strategy. Using this strategy, you can talk to actual end users to evaluate your hypotheses and look for areas where improvements might be possible. To assist you in finding people with disabilities, use well-known organizations, state chapters, or neighborhood training facilities.

Watch research sessions with your team to see actual users.

Invite all team members and important stakeholders to observe the sessions when doing research. By doing this, the possibility of empathy and the related acceptance of research findings are greatly increased. One must see to believe. Additionally, interacting with and watching the user in real time is even more effective.

You might need to devote some time to promoting UX research inside your team or company before inviting your coworkers to user testing. Make sure everyone is aware of the importance of user-experience design and the benefits it may provide, like time savings, a reduction in rework, and a product that meets genuine user demands.

Make sure to publish recordings of user sessions in a location where individuals may find them and view them independently in the event that they are unable to see in person.

When presenting research findings to stakeholders, use videos of actual users.

Include videos demonstrating how users carry out that task in practice to support your results and suggestions. Your conclusions will be stronger, and you’ll have a broader sense of empathy for your audience. If you followed our first tip and selected a broad participant group, it shouldn’t be difficult for you to include a range of people in your videos, including those with various histories, ethnicities, and skills.

Create an empathy map

Empathy maps condense your understanding of users into a single location while capturing users’ feelings, hopes, and anxieties. You can find gaps in your current knowledge and determine the kinds of research that will be necessary to fill them with the aid of an empathy map.

More crucially, an empathy map can serve as a source of truth throughout a project, shielding it from prejudice or false assumptions, which can help others develop empathy for users. Because everyone has the same visual starting point, empathy maps lessen the chance of misalignment.

Invest Into a Diverse Team

Although the phrase “you are not the user” may sound cliche, it is actually a characteristic of human psychology to believe that others think and act in the same way that we do. You’ll produce designs that subtly favor that user group if everyone on your team is a male under the age of 30, with a tech background.

Assemble a team with members from various ethnicities and backgrounds. Although it won’t ensure users’ empathy, it will at least be a step in the right way. The term “acquired diversity” refers to experiences, abilities, and attitudes that each individual has acquired over the course of their lives. Acquired diversity is, broadly speaking, a person’s perception of the world and the specifics of cultures over a long period of time.

Integrate Empathy Into Your Design Principles

Establish rules that promote empathy within this heterogeneous team. Instead of asking the user every question imaginable, for instance, consistently prioritize each and every one of them (some of which may make the user feel inadequate or uncomfortable, bring up bad memories, etc.).

You might have a solid notion of the kinds of false assumptions your team tends to make if you’ve been on it for a while. Make clear rules that might serve as a checkpoint for your team’s undesirable behaviors, particularly when it comes to empathy. Consider adding a guideline that can remedy this behavior, for instance, if your team is prone to not updating designs that don’t work for particular people.

The prescription could be a diverse user group that corresponds to our target demographics and must test each design. Say “Let’s study what works and what doesn’t for users and why”, not “Let’s validate this design”.


In UX, empathy is crucial. For UX experts, it is a gateway into the thoughts of our users and is by far our biggest asset. Empathy enables us to create with purpose, bring focus and clarity, speak out for our users, and question our presumptions.

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