How to Implement an Empathic Approach to Web Design


“We spend a lot time designing the bridge, but not enough time thinking about the people who are crossing it.” – Dr. Prabhjot Singh, Director of Systems Design, the Earth Institute

Empathy as we know it is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. In web design, an empathic approach entails understanding the user’s situation in relation to the website — their problems, thoughts and feelings. It’s an approach that focuses on their needs and how to better meet them to overcome any problems they may face as they navigate a website.

Empathy is also at the core of web design. Design is all about improving the user’s experience, and this can only be done by understanding them and their problems. It goes beyond just thinking about what they want or what they’re going to do; it’s about the actual feelings and emotions they’ll feel as they land on the website and browse. For example, the frustration of a lengthy checkout process made worse by a forced sign-up; the irritation that items can’t be added to the cart without signing in; and the annoyance of not being able to find a product because of poor search filters.

It boils down to the fact that without empathy, you can’t truly design a website your users will want to use because there’s a fundamental stumbling block in the form of a disconnect between you and them. Only by actually understanding your users can you improve their experience with you. Instead of serving them what you think they want, you’ll give them what they actually want. That’s an empathic approach to web design, and this is how you implement it.

1: Observe Your Users

Short of reading your users’ mind, the best you can do to understand them is observing them as they navigate your website. To this end, give a third-party some objectives to complete on the site and observe everything they do. The goal is to test your website’s usability, so pay attention to everything they do and how long it takes them to do so. Did they face any problems? If so, were they able to overcome them?

For example, if you have an ecommerce store, ask them to add an item to the cart and proceed to checkout. In this instance, take note of how they search for the product, whether there were any issues finding it (e.g., issues with search filters), if there were any stumbling blocks that delayed or prevented checkout, and so on.

2: Analyse the Data

After you’ve observed your user(s) and captured all the necessary data, analyse it to get a better understanding of their experience with the website. You want to understand everything, so go over every single interaction with a fine-tooth comb and separate the good from the bad. Was everything successful? Probably not, so where was the confusion — where were the pain points? Not everything will be bad either, so take a closer look at the good as well to see what sets it apart from the rest.

3: Find a Solution

Here’s where the empathy comes in — as you analyse, look at all the data from a user’s perspective to better understand their needs and problems. This will help you arrive at intuitive solutions they’ll find the most helpful. In other words, don’t come at this from a developer’s mindset; use a user’s instead. As a user, you want to accomplish what you set out to do as fast and as seamless as possible. You don’t care for bells and whistles as much as convenience, so a faster journey from landing to checkout will serve you better than a flashy one.

4: Solve Their Problem(s)

Finally, put your solutions from the previous step to the test and go back to the first step (observe). For example, if users had any problems finding an item, can you add any new search filters to make future searches easier? Or maybe you need to add a whole new category for some products to make the search easier. Whatever you do, implement the changes and see how your users react to them. At the end of the day, it’s a process that necessitates for you to go through the steps multiple times until your users have exceptional experiences that lack for nothing.

Final Thoughts

Any web design agency will tell you that key to a good website is empathy. First and foremost, a website is there for its users. They should feel at home and never annoyed or burdened while navigating. If they do, you can bet they’ll want to click out as soon as possible. Don’t let this happen — implement an empathic approach to web design instead.

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