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Why Caring is Proactive Problem Solving

There is a constant effort to create the best product, service or experience. As users' motivations and needs grow, new opportunities will arise to advance the user experience (UX), which encompasses all the aspects of the user’s interaction with your services, product and their environment. UX is about creating meaningful, effective and engaging experiences. You can use sympathetic and empathetic UX to reach an understanding of your user’s perspective to produce a solution. Let’s dig into the differences between these two approaches:

Sympathetic UX is about:

  • Seeing a user struggle
  • Utilizing this knowledge to comprehend their frustration
  • Addressing the immediate distress

The ultimate goal is to relieve the person of their problem.

Empathetic UX is about:

  • Relating to the experience of the user’s problem
  • Diagnosing and resolving the root cause of a problem

The ultimate goal is to understand and target the triggers actual problem.

To put it simply, Sympathetic UX solutions often produce surface level solutions which can be easily implemented, but lack the understanding that results in holistically effective changes discovered with Empathetic UX.

Sympathetic vs. Empathetic UX in Practice


Setting up the Situation:

Imagine you are walking along a sidewalk and notice people are cutting through the grass at a diagonal of the intended walking path. You can see that there is a dirt path in grass from so many people taking this path. You stop someone and ask them why they are cutting through the grass and they tell you “because it saves me 10 minutes on my commute.”  You could come to the conclusion that the reason people aren’t using the sidewalk is because it’s inefficient to the direction people need to travel. The discrepancy between what was designed and how people are behaving is a clear problem. The dirt path can be considered the organic solution to the sidewalk inefficiencies.

The dirt path is an indicator of a user reaching the apex of their frustrations and reacting by cutting across the grass. When a user reacts to their frustrations, it can be considered the symptom to a potentially deeper problem.

How and why would you apply sympathetic or empathetic UX to resolve this problem?

Understanding the Problem

When using UX to solve a problem it is important to have an understanding of the aspects affecting your users.

Below are steps to assist in gathering information to resolve the overarching problem.  

  • Identify the current process by observing or asking about the user’s journey.

First, we identified that the user’s current process is to pack their bags at the end of class, walk along the sidewalk until across from the building with the second class and then cross along the grass (or dirt path).

  • Discover the user’s motivations and frustrations for the current process by asking the user to describe the reasons for their current behavior.

We then discovered that the user’s motivations and frustrations are that they only have 10-15 minutes in between each class and their second class is on the other side of campus. If the user is late, the teacher will deduct points from their grade. The user cuts across the grass to save time and get to class on time.

  • Determine what environmental constraints affect the current process by observing or asking the user about what’s happening around them during their journey.

Finally, we determine that the users are on a college campus and their  environmental constraints are that the walk along the sidewalk will take about 12 minutes on a good day, but normally 20 minutes given the number of people traveling, the weather , special events and the weight of the bags being carried.

Producing a Solution

With the right information you can see the difference between a sympathetic or empathetic UX solution.

  • A sympathetic UX solution would be to pave over the dirt path, making it inclusive to the network of sidewalks. This solution incorporates their current process, meaning it will be easily adopted. It resolves the user’s frustrations about getting to class late and mitigates the fear of losing points from their grade. The solution takes advantage of the preferred organic suggestion gathered from the behavior demonstrated in the user’s interaction with their physical environment.  

Great! The problem is solved. Or is it? While paving the dirt path resolved your user’s problem, what if it doesn’t actually address the triggers that are being surfaced by your users leaving the sidewalk to cut across the grass.

  • An empathetic UX solution is a process of relating to a user’s experience, not simply a response to the analysis of their reactions. In order to empathize with your user’s problem you should walk the same path, feel the same motivations and interact with the same constraints. Be conscious of the aspects of your experience that motivate your decisions. Once you empathize with the users, identify the range of solutions to your user’s problem. In addition to paving the path, other solutions may include removing the user’s frustration by reevaluating attendance policies or class scheduling to accommodate student travel time.  

Empathetic UX exposes solutions that go beyond immediate frustrations to the holistic experience, targeting behavioral triggers and environmental constraints that exist around the point at which change occurs. As a result you can identify solutions that cause systemic changes which may not directly resolve the immediate problem but will address the deviation from expected behavior.

Using a sympathetic UX solution may resolve the immediate distress of your users, without taking a more empathetic approach to address the triggers for your users behavior you might find that your solutions have mitigated the issues without solving the problem. An empathetic UX solution will ensure that you have the insights to comprehend factors to the problem allowing you to create solutions that will cause systemic scalable transformations.

See, UX is all around us! If you enjoyed this piece, come check out my presentation on the subject at this year’s UXDC Conference sponsored in part by CHIEF.