Feel Your User

by Megan Fath
To create inspired, compelling communication, products or services, we often need to get beyond the insights embedded in user research to a deeper emotive connection to end users. Yet, unprompted, it can be difficult for us to relate to many of the users who are our intended audience.

As much as we may try, we are not every woman or man. How can we develop user empathy? Try an empathy exercise with your design and client team that simulates first-hand, real user experiences.

The following are some principles and tips for creating an empathy exercise
1. Target the most revealing experience. This will require a bit of backwards engineering. Imagine what will be the most revealing, emotive experience for your team. Referencing existing research is helpful. What are typical pain points and/or delights for your users? Create activities that will require your team members to get out of their own comfort zone and immersed in the delights and frustrations of experiences typical to the user.

2. Frame it to be appealing. One way to kill any initiative is to make the activity way too involved. Scale it appropriately to ensure great participation. You may offer “extra credit” by suggesting supplemental activities. When assigning an empathy exercise, make sure it communicates as a fun endeavor, i.e., brand it and/or create “missions.”

3. Encourage an open-mind. Before sending your team members out to the field, spend some time as a team explaining the goals and objective. If an individual member is known to be a bit stubborn or a naysayer, you may want to consider an activity that can be done in pairs and pair he/she with an enthusiastic teammate.

4. Capture the experience. Providing notebooks for field documentation will help team members reflect and contemplate the experience. The notebooks can include a list of questions to guide reflection. Example questions include: What were some frustrations with this experience? Describe. What were some surprises? What were some other emotions you experienced? When? Why? Any other observations or key takeaways?

5. Follow it up with dialogue. Reserve time to bring the team together to share their empathy experiences. Use the field notebooks as a tool to get the team talking. As they share their experiences write observations on a whiteboard.

We have used this empathy exercise for a number of projects. It also serves as a great kick-off to a team workshop. Here are a few examples to inspire you in creating your own empathy exercise(s):

—For a retail project, we asked our client team to purchase clothes to wear for the upcoming workshop from their own chain. The team arrived at to the workshop with rich stories echoing some of the same typical user experiences.

—For a medical project, we created a set of instructions for the team to live a day-in-the-life of a patient. They were required to take tic-tacs in place of prescribed drugs and follow the recommended nutrition and exercise plan. Not only did they empathize with the patient’s daily care as a constant interruption, they also experienced first-hand the social stigma associated with the condition.


To create inspired, compelling communication, products or services, have your design team engage in activities that will require your them step out of their own comfort zone and immerse in the delights and frustrations of the actual user experience.


Quick Tips
1. Before sending your team out, try the activity out for yourself. This will help you create directions and troubleshoot any prospective challenges.

2. Document the team’s empathetic experiences as a sharable outcome. These experiences and connections can live beyond the project.


Dig Deeper!
1. The anthrodesign list serve has several threads discussing empathy exercises.

2. Wired to Care speaks at length the value of emotionally connecting with users.


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