Designing for empathy, not just usability

(Fair warning, this post is opinion and anecdotal, not empirical)

Call me a softie, call me a stark raving empath, tell me I’m a social ‘scientist’ as though that’s a bad thing; but I firmly believe that what we design should make people feel confident. At the very least, it shouldn’t make a dent on their sense of agency when they encounter a service, form, website or product.

Bus shelter poster, Lewisham Way, London

(Bus shelter poster, Lewisham Way, London)

Our users have their own contexts, their own stories that contribute to the mindset they have when they approach a product. We should account for this context, and indeed, actively seek information on this context when we meet our users.

In particular, when designing government transactions (but it could be applied to any form of transaction), we need to have a level of awareness of  the journey people have been through before they get to the transaction itself. What does that kind of awareness look like? As a user researcher, I get to be in the position of informally chatting to people about their context before we jump into playing with a product. Here’s what I’m keen to know about a user before I launch into a usability test or another activity:

Have they been given the runaround by the bricks and mortar version of the service?

We’ve all been there before, being passed from pillar to post, department to department to get a simple task done. If the user has gone through a long process offline just to get to the online process, the user could be nearing the end of their tether. Try to create an online experience that is sympathetic to the journey the user may have been through just to get to the website. Also consider this if your website’s information architecture doesn’t immediately elevate the transaction to a place where the users can easily find it.
Where have they been informed about this process? Friends and family? Media?

If your transaction is a one off transaction – such as a transaction to activate a payment, your users may have been informed by others who have gone ahead of them. In some research I carried out on activating state pension payments – a one off transaction, our users told us they found out about the process from their friends who had reached pension age before them. Not everyone googles for the information they need. Often asking a user with no prior experience of a certain transaction what they expect will happen in the process can pay dividends if you’re trying to reimagine the process.

Is there a lot riding on the transaction?  Could there be potential financial or legal implications from the transaction?

If your users are trying to complete some life admin in an area that they’re not well versed in (tax returns spring immediately to mind), they could be under added pressure for fear of completing the form incorrectly. Clearly explaining concepts and consequences clearly can do a lot to allay fears. Stick to one concept or question at a time.
Does the transaction have a reputation of being a ‘grudge transaction’?

If there’s an element of the transaction that users have to carry out on a regular or semi-regular basis, what is their feeling of it based on past experience? One user I recently worked with kept mentioning an ID they’d been assigned to carry out government transactions as the ‘nightmare number’ because she had encountered so much trouble in using the ID to get into any transactions. This highlights the importance of ensuring that any logins we place in front of a transaction are easy enough to sign up for, activate and re-use when the time comes. If your users are in a situation where they need to have an ID but they only use the ID maybe once or twice a year at best, ask them how they store that information and whether retrieving that information adds another layer of stress to completing the transaction.

What do they fear will happen if they make an error in the transaction?

It’s often fear of the worst case scenario that makes users unnecessarily err on the side of caution and omit rather than submit salient information that could help them out. Help out your user with clear, concise information at known points of confusion. If users are faced with a situation where they cannot complete the transaction because the options don’t fit their circumstances, then provide details for offline support.


I’m really keen to hear what you find important to ask users as contextual questions. I’d also like to know how you factor empathy into designing and iterating your products.

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