Emphatic Design

Practical definitions in the context of software development

This is the first of a series of articles on Empathic Design for software.

Why do people buy troublesome cars? Expensive insurance and maintenance, too big to find parking easily, bad mileage, etc.? It is no other reason than empathy. Something in their appearance and experience of driving them appeals to the buyer so much that it trumps any other logical, efficiency, and practical reasons.

The concepts I define here are not from dictionaries or attempt to describe the general use of the word. They are my interpretation, applied only to the context of software development and based on my professional experience in this and other industries.

1. What is Empathy?

 HEAVILY influence our decisions

To relate to an experience someone else has had.

This relation creates an emotional bond. The strength of the bond is determined by how similar both contexts are; the closer you can relate to that experience, the stronger the emotional bond will be. A powerful emotional bond can heavily influence our decisions.

2. What is Design?

To me, “to design” is a synonym of “to plan”.

You can practically replace “design” with “planning” anywhere. In the broad sense, everything in a software project is planned: the architecture, the technologies, platforms and libraries to use, costs and expenses, hours and resources, etc. However, what is usually meant by “Design” (preceded by terms like UI, UX, product, etc.) is the work of shaping the product in a way that people can use it.

Design provides an interface that users can interact with to abstract elements like code and architecture.

UI — plan the visuals: colors, images, illustrations, icons, buttons, etc.

UX — plan the navigation and way the screens will flow into each other.

Senior designers do the planning, junior designers do the executing.

Analogy: A fantastic team of engineers design (plan) a way to use technology to perform an activity in a different (hopefully more efficient) way. Designers give it handles and pedals. Sometimes, they even wrap these in Italian leather and hand-sew them in red silk-thread.

3. “Now kiss”…

 Empathy + Design = Empathic Design… right?

It’s not as simple as merging them together. Empathic Design is to plan a product in a way that it creates a strong emotional bond with its user.

Everybody has come across the concepts of empathy and design in their life. The concept of Empathic Design as a methodology originated in Industrial Design and made famous by IDEO. However, in the world of software, these are rarely heard together. Why should they?

As explained before, finding empathy with a situation or object creates an emotional bond that affects decisions. Imagine two software products of equal quality. One generates an emotional bond with the potential customer, the other doesn’t. The customer chooses the one that binds them together in a way that is hard to explain.

Analogy: In the Disney/Pixar movie Ratatouille, a strict and skeptical food critic is moved when the taste of a dish evokes in him distant memories of his childhood. The flavor was the same as the ratatouille his mother cooked long ago; the flavor alone did not mean comfort and motherly love, he created that meaning. The product generated a powerful emotional bond with its user. This experience influence his decisions from that moment on. I never ate ratatouille in my childhood, so tasting his same plate would not evoke that in me.

The magic is in ourselves, not in the product; however, the product can have the magic words that set us off.

Why should software development use Empathic Design?

It already does. Software products establish emotional bonds with users all the time, some good and some bad. It is simply more effective if done consciously. Several techniques allow designers to “get in the shoes” of the stakeholders and increase the chance of engagement and adoption. An app that speaks to our deepest emotions and memories has a higher chance of staying in our phone regardless of how intuitive and productive it is.

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Let’s build something beautiful together.

dany sanchez ux author

Danny Sánchez
UI/UX Designer at Dev IQ, Men-at-Work fan, and 3D printing guru.

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