January 8th, 2014

Making Connections Part 1 – Empathy in User Experience Design

A framework for empathy in design

This is the first article of a series that presents my research through neuroscience, cultural anthropology, design theory and psychology, to understand the neuronal activity that triggers the design process and inspire a thoughtful approach to digital product design.

Why did you place that button there? 

This question sounds familiar to everyone involved in a design.

The design process begins by understanding the audience – your user. This helps to understand motivations, fix drawbacks, fill in gaps and define how we can achieve the product’s purpose.

Within the design phase there is a holistic combination of intuition, emotions and their rationalization and elaboration.

Let’s explore where our intuitions are coming from, and how we can apply them for connecting our designs emotionally and rationally with users.

Empathy: Mirroring experiences

When we emphatically connect with someone our brains replicate their feelings and emotions so that we temporarily become their ‘inner mirror’.

What mechanisms take part in our brain to prompt empathy?

Back in the 90’s a group of Italian neuroscientists led by Giacomo Rizzolati discovered the existence of a neuronal mechanism, by which the actions performed by others, captured by the sensor systems, are automatically transferred to the observer’s motor system.

The observers’ brain creates a copy of the behavior perceived, almost as if they were conducting the activity.

The imitation prompts an understanding of the state of mind of the other person and allows us to tune in with their emotions, feelings and perceptions.

This neuron that activates is known as the Mirror Neuron, responsible of empathy (from Greek em – into and pathos – passion, feeling).

Inspiration: M.C. Escher, Bond Of Union

Designing with mind and heart

Great designs get closer to the lives and experiences of users.

In the brain, Mirror Neurons trigger empathy, as designers we can harness the value of co-feeling to create experiences that support and boost user needs and expectations.

A brilliant paper by industrial designers Kouprie and Visser analyses how the concept of empathy has been developed in psychology. It proposes a framework to effectively apply empathy in design.

The authors explain that by immersing themselves into the users experiences, designers can go beyond rational understanding and interiorize user expectations, reactions, feelings, dreams, aspirations and create more consistent and pleasant experiences.

Whilst some of us are more naturally inclined towards empathy, there are techniques that help a designer relate empathetically to users.

User research techniques that involve an ethnographic immersion both through ‘direct contact with between designers and users’ and through ‘techniques for evoking designers own feelings in a domain relevant to the users’ (e.g. role playing, diary studies) are the foundation to connect with users.

It is always more challenging creating products for audiences distant from our personal experience (e.g. a young designer creating a site for silver surfers, or a non-gambler redesigning an online casino client).


Kouprie and Visser explain that there are two components of empathy: affective and cognitive. Affective is the natural response that occurs in the brain – designers can create a rational distance to the feeling  (cognitive) and use their knowledge to project concepts and patterns that will gradually build a better product.

The psychological process of ‘stepping in and out of the users’ life’ should be recurrent across user centric design approaches. Being aware of affective and cognitive empathy used with the right balance in the design process helps us with organisation and achieves more informed results.

The approach fits within agile frameworks and makes users an active part of the product creation.

Ultimately, understanding the power of empathy helps designers create better digital products.

To make our design friendly to the perspective audience, we have to understand and consider the cultural context in which the product will be used.

The next post of the ‘Making connections’ series will analyse an uncommon eye tracking experiment, which provide precious insights for when we convey cultural symbols into designs.

About the author

Silvia aims to please with seamless designs. As an user experience designer she is intrigued by users and their interactions with digital products and works to refine her eclectic skill set.