Empathy is the ability to feel what someone else is feeling. It goes beyond its sister attribute sympathy, which is to understand what someone is feeling. With empathy, you develop your own connection with another person through shared emotions.

Empathy forges a new and powerful kind of knowledge. Looking at data sheets, reading reports, analyzing workflow, mastering technology—these are all powerful and useful kinds of knowledge. Empathy provides the framework to take knowledge and make it meaningful.

Empathy kindles the fire of motivation necessary to bring about change. Without empathy for the person who is going to be using your product or service, your efforts will lack the focus and motivation to become meaningful. The more you understand the problems and feel the pains of your users, the better solutions you will provide for them. It’s that simple.

Well, it’s simple to say but not simple to do. Empathy is developed one person at a time. Here are a few suggestions on cultivating an attitude of empathy. These can help you develop a stream of empathy to carry you through your UX design career.

  • Talk to people about their passions. People love to talk about themselves. Use this to your advantage. Develop a sincere desire to know more about everyone you meet. Listen more than you talk.
  • Watch people. Watch them especially using your products or your prototypes if you can. Try to explain seemingly inexplicable behavior.
  • Express understanding and appreciation for a family member, friend, or co-worker. Walk a mile in their shoes.

Consider for a moment the power of empathy. When you talk about people in the abstract, it’s very difficult to create an emotional connection with them. When you sit down with someone and get to know them and begin to see how they are a person like you with similar problems and passions, it becomes much easier to understand their needs and how you can help them. This is difficult to do without meeting people face-to-face, without listening to them, without carefully observing them and taking note of their behaviors, their preferences, and their pains and joys.

Empathy can replace ‘them’ with ‘us’. There is nothing so powerful as two or more human beings expanding their understanding and empathy toward one another. User experience design leverages this fact and that’s why empathy is so important to this industry and to your future career as a user experience designer.

I have a personal story that will help you understand how powerful empathy can be. My mom swore that she would never use a computer and she stayed true to this conviction for a long time. But in 2009, Apple came out with the iPad. We got one at work and I checked it out and brought it home to play with it.

To me, the iPad was a little underwhelming. I already had an iPhone which was pretty great. I already had a MacBook Pro which was pretty great. I didn’t see the need for this middle-of-the-road device. But it was cool and new so I brought it home to show my family.

My mom happened to be visiting us at the time. When I showed it to her I could tell she was interested. Without explaining anything about it, I simply handed her the device.

I was so surprised by what happened! She spent an hour with her eyes glued to the screen trying out different applications, playing with Maps, and generally annoying my kids by not letting them have a turn. When she handed it back to me she said “that’s a computer I would use.”

That experience changed me. I no longer saw my mother as a Luddite but as someone who had specific needs and wants from technology. I suddenly realized that the iPad was not created for me. It was created for people like my mom. People who could benefit from the power of a personal computer but didn’t like managing the complexity that came with the typical computers of the day. I understood my mother emotionally and intellectually in a way I had never comprehended before.

This illustrates exactly what can happen when we take the time to observe the end-user and understand why they do what they do and how they feel about it.

Nothing can replace empathy.