Defining Empathy

As a student of the giants of our industry, I’m naturally a huge advocate of empathy and write often – on Twitter at least – about its importance to the UX design process.

So while it may be an imperative for effective user experience design, how should empathy manifest itself?

Last week I caught up with a friend I hadn’t seen in far too long, one of the smartest people I know. An ex-social worker who studied behavioural psychology at university, he is naturally curious. He has always shown a genuine interest in anyone he meets; he wants to know their story.

When we talked about the work I was now involved in, I mentioned that he would be ideally suited to the discipline and we talked about people, their expectations and motivations.

During the conversation he mentioned a trait that his mother – herself a social worker – had brought him up to practice. This was Unconditional Positive Regard; the simple acceptance of another’s behaviour which provides that individual with support to achieve personal growth.

It struck me that this had huge relevance. While we are identifying the motivations and needs of others, are we not required to show positive regard for whatever these might be? If (in simple terms) we are attempting to connect individuals with their goals then it falls on us also to treat those goals and associated needs with respect.

So “Positive regard” appears to go with the territory. If we are then to deliver on the promise of a positive user experience for all of our desired audiences, does the element of respect not also need to be unconditional? This sounds like the very definition of human-centred design.

As UX designers, behavioural psychology is one of many areas we often find ourselves straying into, looking for meaning. Simple concepts like this can throw new light on our work, and further validate our approach whenever we doubt ourselves.

Needless to say it was an interesting conversation with my friend. I look forward to many more in the years to come.

Perception Chain

As an enthusiastic exponent of Dave Gray’s Gamestorming approach to idea generation, my copy of the book shows signs of wear that belie its short life. If you are unfamiliar with Dave’s work it’s worth taking a look through the site… even better, buy the book. For me it has become an invaluable part of the UX toolbox, containing a wealth of material ideally suited to stakeholder engagement, customer research and much, much more.

One of the regular features in workshops I put together is the Understanding Chain. You can read full details here, but in brief it’s an effective mechanism for identifying (amongst other things) what really matters to an organisation’s core audiences. Questions are brainstormed by workshop participants, then ordered and structured into a narrative, ultimately looking for weak links in the chain – either the overall toughest questions or those that simply aren’t being answered.

Claiming credit for a modification may be going too far; all of the activities that Dave has assembled are inherently hackable and can be tailored to most contexts. But I thought this recent example was worth sharing.

The Understanding Chain had been used in the first of two client workshops, resulting in a number of customer questions identified as the most common and hardest to answer. Central amongst them was – unsurprisingly for a multi-faceted service company – “What do you do?”. With the second workshop involving a similar mix of participants from across the business, we needed something that would begin to connect questions to answers.

With a few minor alterations the Understanding Chain became a ‘Perception Chain’. Rather than “what questions are your audiences asking”, the line of enquiry switched focus to the messages that contribute to perceptions of the organisation:
– What messages does each audience hear?
– How is each message communicated?
– Where does it originate from?
– What need is the message seen to meet?

The messages were categorised in a manner similar to the questions in the Understanding Chain, but in this case the categories used were:
– Ambient (general perception based on word-of-mouth or brand awareness)
– Broad-brush (general marketing messages)
– Targeted (aimed at specific audience)

When the messages had been identified and categorised, the group was asked which was the most potent or impactful. This worked very effectively in conjunction with the questions output from day one; it was a natural step to ask the group if the messages their audiences hear answer the questions they are asking.

This can help to identify gaps in the marketing mix, and – crucially – begin the process of finding a singular message capable of cutting across audience boundaries. It has the potential to get to the very essence of a brand, or to make sense of an organisation’s diverse service offering.

With some small tweaks, the Understanding Chain brought a whole new aspect to understanding customers’ needs – just what our workshop needed.

The future’s Bright(on). The future’s UX.

I was privileged to attend UX Brighton in the first week of November. Not to be lumped in with the glut of web design conferences of various flavours around the UK, UX Brighton is different and – yes – in a good way.

Many conferences have higher profiles, others have slicker marketing and unrelenting promotional pushes. The brainchild of Danny Hope however, now in its fourth year, is an intense, single day affair that seeks to truly understand what it means to design for engagement and interaction with people. There was little in the way of ‘swag’, treats, buttons, stickers, and other such gimmickry. What matters here is the content, the minds that have been assembled and the knowledge imparted.

Shock of the new

If I’m honest? I was taken aback. The day offered such a wealth of food for thought I was left reeling at the sheer depth of this still-young industry. It also confirmed to me the myriad different paths that lead to a life in UX. Many of these were represented and apparent in a diverse set of talks, one recurring theme not surprisingly being the importance of research over dangerous assumptions and received wisdom.

It’s business time

Commercial reality is one of the main challenges I face day-to-day. Finding a place for UX thinking in already-squeezed project budgets is not easy when visual outputs are in demand from day one. Indeed the commercial imperative tends to be disturbingly absent from much of the design conference circuit’s output; under a facade of ‘inspiration’, much generalist, impractical nonsense makes its way into circulation. This was not to be the the case in Brighton, with UX clearly shown to be at the heart of achieving success and promoting mass adoption. “User experience”, as James Kalbach so pointedly put it, “is good business”.

Sticks and stones

In certain corners of the design industry something of a backlash against user experience work appears to be brewing, characterising it as a barrier to progress, obsessed with deliverables and documentation. The concept of ‘lean UX’ has emerged as a kind of response, but itself is a concept that I have to say I find incredible has gained any traction. The whole point of UX (IMHO of course) is that it should be baked in to the design process, not stand alone by rights. Every design process that has people and end users at its conclusion is, or should be, a UX process by default. Whether we call it simply ‘design’ or ‘lean UX’ is semantics. It’s designing for the user. Always has been, always will be.

I’ve heard the work I’m now involved with summarised as ‘usability’ design (sound familiar UX folk?). I’ve also heard it framed as being diametrically opposed to ‘creative’ design. Here’s the thing. If you are a designer – of anything – and you are not interested in how people are going to interact with your design, you don’t deserve the mantle. And by “interested in” I mean “interested enough to hear what other people have to say about your work”.

Happy endings

As a blinkered graphic designer in the early years of my career I locked myself in solipsistic world of Photoshop filters and typographic noodling, not really considering the end use of what I was producing. It only had to look cool, and what’s more, it only had to look cool to me. Design education had failed to instil in me the notion that there were people on the other end of the indulgent process I was lost in. That’s about as anti-UX as you can get. Happily, somewhere along my journeyman’s travels, sense prevailed.

The future’s bright(on)

I get the impression that those entering today’s web industry are more than a little clued in, and what the future holds is an industry with exactly the type of baked-in UX I mentioned above. The principle of research as a critical cornerstone of any credible design process is immutable. I see UX design as the act of going deeper and broader with that research, and always – always – countering assumptions with informed conclusions.

Oh – UX Brighton? Amazing!

People-centred design™

I’m a little late to the party here but still bemused enough at the storm in a teacup that I couldn’t let it go. Jack Dorsey’s suggestion that we need to talk about “customers” rather than “users” sparked one heck of a debate and gathered a lot of backing, but it strikes as having more than a whiff of the PR exercise about it.

The term “users” remains relevant and essential. Anyone with any experience of designing for user interfaces know for instance that marketing personas are, and should remain, distinct from user personas. One can inform the other of course; much good data can be gleaned from well thought out and comprehensive marketing personas. But We cannot allow the term “customers” to dominate.

We use devices, we interact with content. Within those two simple statements lies a myriad of questions that require answers, challenges that need addressed. To apply the term “customer” regardless of context is to give undue emphasis to a marketing-centric approach. The art and science of designing for the web has many facets, of which designing for customers is just one.

If anyone practising user experience or user-interface design was so caught up in the science of their work that users becomes some kind of abstract, then something is wrong. If that was Jack’s point, I’d be right behind him. We are designing for people.

However, Jack also emphasises the importance of semantics in support of his argument, but it is a flawed point. Before “customers” is a fit term to apply in these contexts, that word in itself would require redefining. He also argues that “the word ‘customer’ is a much more active and bolder word. It’s honest and direct”. It is not. I’d suggest there are many people interacting with their favourite apps or sites who would be horrified to find out they are regarded as “customers”.

Apple has recently put Jonathan Ive in charge of what it has historically called its “Human Interface (HI)” team, a term which if anything sounds even more clinical, impersonal than UI design. No matter though; Apple know they are dealing with people, with customers, with consumers… with users. Whatever terms they choose to use in internal processes, what really matters is the products that emerge from them. Everything else is hot air.

UX & The Weight of Expectation

I’ve been thinking increasingly about the importance of user expectations in planing an effective user experience.

The greatest asset we have in going to meet the challenge of the user’s mental model is simply knowing it exists in the first place. A huge part of user research concerns itself with the needs of the user, but it’s important not to let this spill over into a hapless quest for what the user wants.

Don’t Give Me What I Want

User requirements are one of the basic tenets of user experience design. We know however that if the user got everything they wanted then we would almost certainly have a very messy interface to contend with, one overflowing with superfluous functionality and options. In short, what the user wants is often at odds with that they truly need.

This points to a very particular approach to user research.

In my own experience when the opportunity exists to talk to users in person the line of questioning should monitor the distinction between wants and needs very carefully. When talking through a particular system with a user group, the type of question I try to avoid is “what do you want to see on this page?”.

Love Me, Love My User

A quick aside here – people are amazing. Watching them in action on a website or an application is possibly the single greatest education a UI designer can have. They won’t always do what you expect them to do or what you want them to do. They will however do what they feel they need to do in order to achieve a goal. And that, of course, can be endlessly frustrating for designers.

In research as in life, framing a question can be as important as the question itself.

An open question such as “what would you like to see on this page?” (as a crude example) will garner very different responses from “what would you expect to see on the next page?”. The former can lead to some serous flights of fancy, where the entire web as we know it has to be re-engineered to match the heady goals set for what the site has to provide. Expectations are so much more important than perceived need.

Let Me Down Easy

When engaging with stakeholders, the same types of enquiry can help to keep a sense of promise to a minimum. “What do you want…” infers a degree of promise about what will be delivered. So much of stakeholder engagement is about inclusivity, giving people a platform to make contributions to a process that values their input. To over-promise in these situations is to mislead participants as to what will be done with their feedback. “What do you expect?” carries with it less of an overt sense of promise, and more one of discussion.

What’s New, Pussycat?

And what, you may ask, of innovation? If we only deliver in line with expectations, how does anything new enter the mix? Clearly, delivering “to expectations” is a lowly objective for any project. However, delivering what users expect is an imperative. The point is that we are not constantly seeking to reimagine the web. The time for reinventing conventions is gone. Lord knows we saw enough “innovative” – some might say wacky – attempts at elements such as navigation systems pre-2002. We have been left with a web that, generally speaking, conforms. And there is no shame in that. Most of our consumer products do the same; even the iPod delivered innovation in a very familiar package, building on the form factor that products such as the Walkman had created. Everyday innovation almost always arrives in tandem with the familiar. And delivering based on expectations does not preclude the element of delight.


Users do not like the unanticipated, but they will react positively to a system that simplifies a task. Strive for innovation of course, but be careful how you define it. And make no mistake – managing expectations is possibly the single biggest task faced by UX practitioners. As techniques such as responsive design gain traction, the issue of expectations grows ever more complex. In user research, assume nothing… and expect the unexpected.