"Empathy" refers to the human quality that allows us to connect to others on a deeper level. We are able to see ourselves in their place and imagine where they could be coming from, what they may be going through. This empathetic view allows us to modify our behavior to engage another person in a way that fosters a relationship based on understanding.

But empathy can also help us create a better digital experience. User experience (UX) designers are tasked with understanding and championing users’ needs. That allows us to tailor both content and design in a way that delivers a satisfying online experience.

UX designers live by the mantra, “Get to know your user.” Sounds great. But getting in touch with one’s own emotions is hard enough; how do we begin to get in touch with someone else’s? How can we possibly understand each individual user on such a personal level?

Part of any successful digital project is to set realistic goals; the goal of keeping empathy at the center of the process is attainable. The trick is to create an empathy-driven experience that will be specific enough for your brand yet broad enough to be inclusive of almost all of your users. Luckily, there’s an easy way to simplify this empathetic approach: have a conversation.

Listen... and don't interrupt.

First, let’s zoom out and see the emotional experience of any initial interaction. It begins with a focus on introduction, not conversion, just as you would first introduce yourself to a person you’ve just met and perhaps learn something about her before asking a favor.

Listening and being polite goes a long way in the human world, and it goes a long way in the digital world, too. Impolite online gestures can include: asking the user to sign up for something an excessive number of times or too soon; asking the user for personal information before he is ready; or any intrusive visuals that take away from the message the user is attempting to absorb.

Having empathy towards the user means timing interactions properly and setting the right mood for your brand. Get to know your users, truly welcome them, and foster a sense of trust.

For example, imagine a website where the goal is to get users to sign up for a newsletter. How can we set the mood so that users actually sign up? That depends on the newsletter’s content and our audience’s goals. If the newsletter is about parenting, we might want to convey a cozy, happy, relaxed, family vibe. If the newsletter is about news in medicine, we might consider evoking a sense of authority, credibility, knowledge and approachability.

Meanwhile, user reasons for downloading the newsletter may include learning something new, getting deals on products or being entertained. Beyond these tangible goals are subconscious goals to feel a certain way — smart, savvy or relaxed.

Of course, these are broad summaries. Deeper research can be used to discover the range of emotions that users are seeking. It is always a good idea to start with some general descriptions and move on to more detailed personas. Make sure the personas include those subconscious emotions as well as tangible goals.

Keep it real.

Once we’ve been introduced, we can tell our new acquaintance what we’re all about. Speaking human-to-human can enhance the sense of connection the user feels with a website, and ultimately, with the brand behind it.

As humans, we like human feedback, not mechanical responses that talk at us. The tone does not need to be casual in all cases (sometimes a more formal tone is appropriate), but it should still be real, human and authentic. Consulting our emotional map will determine what tone we should use and help ensure consistency throughout the site.

Generally speaking, users expect interfaces to be intuitive and easy to use. That includes using language they can understand, especially when being asked to complete a task. Complex or confusing interfaces will be abandoned quickly. Instead, use straightforward language to encourage and direct a user to complete tasks successfully and easily.

Say thank you.

We have a newsletter signup! We have a conversion! We’ve met our goal. But it’s not over yet. What about building a relationship? We can only achieve a positive relationship with our users if we send them off feeling that they made the right decision, with no reservations about our brand that might keep them from interacting with us in the future.

Privacy has become a huge concern in the digital world, and users are increasingly vigilant about their personal information. So in our example of newsletter signup, because they have entrusted us with an email address, users need to be reassured that their information is safe. After they submit the form, let’s take them to a page that is engaging and personal, a page that reflects integrity and credibility.

The importance of a genuine “thank you” is something we’re taught early in life, and it’s equally important when interacting with users on a digital platform.

We've covered three basic steps for positioning empathy as a core principle in creating an engaging digital product, but in reality there are many more moments of contact between the people behind the brand and the users. If we remember that on both ends of this equation we find actual people then we’ve accomplished the most necessary objective in creating a truly empathetic experience.

Date: July 14, 2014