Design 7 min read

Empathy: How it drives successful digital product design

The power of empathy in unlocking user needs in UX design
Table of Contents

In today’s digital age, building a successful product requires more than just technical expertise and a good idea. One key ingredient that often goes overlooked is empathy the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. In the context of product design and development, empathy is the ability to understand the needs and wants of the people who will be using the product.

There is a difference between Empathy and Sympathy. If you haven’t seen Dr. Brené Brown’s beautifully illustrated talk about the difference between empathy and sympathy, I highly recommend it.

So, why should we care?

Our brains occasionally use shortcuts to cope with the vast amount of information that is continuously presented to us. For instance, it’s simpler to ignore information that doesn’t easily fit into your worldview than to take it in and make adjustments. Confirmation bias is the name of this shortcut, which is just one of the many biases that humans are prone to.

Unfortunately, these shortcuts are often subconscious and can have severe consequences for our relationships, products, and society. In product development, one of the most common biases is the egocentric empathy gap, or the tendency to assume that what we value is what others value. According to a British Journal of Social Psychology study,

In the absence of contrary information, people tend to project their own traits and attitudes onto others.

This gap is what can lead product designers (who tend to be tech-savvy themselves) to overestimate people’s willingness to adopt new technology. It can also lead to “power users” designing products or features that frustrate wider audiences. On the bright side, there is evidence that acknowledging this tendency and empathizing with others helps minimize its effect, resulting in better outcomes for more people.

The Spectrum of Empathy

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.

Empathy in digital products

When it comes to building digital products, empathy plays a crucial role in the development process. It helps to inform the design decisions that are made and ensures that the end product is user-centric. By putting ourselves in the shoes of the user, we can identify and address their pain points, create solutions that truly meet their needs, and ultimately build a product that they will want to use.

Empathy also helps to create a sense of connection between the team and the user. When the team understands the user’s experience, they are more likely to care about the product’s success and be invested in its outcome. This leads to a more cohesive and dedicated team, who are more likely to produce a higher quality product.

Empathy also extends to the post-launch phase of the product. By continually understanding and addressing user feedback, teams can iterate and improve the product over time, ensuring its continued relevance and success.

Incorporating empathy into the product design and development process is not always easy, but it is essential for creating a successful digital product. One way to do this is to conduct user research, such as user interviews and surveys, to gather information about the user’s needs and wants. This information can then be used to inform design decisions and create solutions that truly meet the user’s needs.

Another way to incorporate empathy is to involve users in the design process, such as through design thinking workshops or user testing sessions. This allows the team to get direct feedback from the users and make adjustments accordingly.

How to Use It

  • Use Qualitative Research Methods 
    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, don’t forget. 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? in place 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 will set them off.
  • 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 critical 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, live interaction and seeing the user are 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 knows 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 them in person.
  • Use Videos of Users Whenever Presenting Research Findings to Stakeholders
    Include videos demonstrating how users carry out that task in practice to support your results and suggestions. Your conclusions will be more robust, 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 to include a range of people in your videos, including those with various histories, ethnicities, and skills.
  • Make 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.


In UX, empathy is crucial. As 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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