Monopoly on Empathy

Look through any User Experience (UX) conference presentation description, UX profile on Linkedin, or go to any UX meetup and the word you will hear most often is “empathy.” As UX has become more formalized as a discipline over the last few years this word has been a rallying cry for the industry. “We fight for the user!” and “We bring empathy to software applications!” are commonly heard. But this word is problematic for many reasons and it’s a massive oversight by the profession that it continues to be used. It is not so much because of the word itself but moreso because of its application and implications. While “empathy” is the most commonly used, it’s certainly not the only one in this tale of poor language choices. A pass at slaughtering these sacred cows will be made too. I aim to point out how this language problem is ultimately counter to the goals of UX (both the end user’s experience, as well as UX as a profession). For want of avoiding making this seem like a fastidious excursion into semantics, I will also tie this into how it impacts UX’s standing within the corporation at large.

The foremost problem of using “empathy” to define your profession’s existence is that you are essentially stating that you as a UX professional have a monopoly on empathy. You are implying that developers, marketers, business people, and anyone else peripheral to the UX craft are apathetic, indeed the opposite of empathetic. It is implied that without you, there would be no empathy for the user, as if the rest of the project team would, whether through menace or ignorance, create and deliver an application that confuses and demoralizes the user. Of course, this is absurd; no one will argue with you that wanting to ensure your users can easily use your application and accomplish their goals is a positive thing. And it should be made clear that UX as a group does not have a monopoly on empathy, just as it does not have a monopoly on the user. Other groups are perfectly capable of wanting to ensure the application works well and easily for users. This is all without even mentioning that “empathy” is a very presumptuous term altogether.

Perhaps the second-most offensive word in our UX existentialist vocabulary is “delight”. Within an application measuring delight is subjective at best, and I can guarantee that no user study that utilizes the encroaching practice of video recording will be able to suss out or give any reliable data whatsoever regarding delight. The misguided pursuit of delight has led to unnecessary animations, uncalibrated and perhaps even overly personal/conversational help text and copywriting, among other things. While delight might be nice in video games or entertainment, I would argue it is not something that is even needed in all applications. Do users even want or need to be delighted? Delight should mean they accomplished their goal or task with the application, not that they saw some pretty colors and slick button animations (…Material Design). Or receiving confirmation emails like “you’re totally awesome for signing up dude, surf’s up!”

The final piece of language we will pick apart is certainly the easiest to do so, due in part to its lesser frequency compared to the prior, but also due to the extremity of its claims – “changing the user’s life.” If “empathy” or “delight” were pretentious or presumptuous, laying claim to “changing the user’s life” through designing experiences is mega-pretentious. Too often this language is a mask for signalling of the offending UX professional’s importance, not the user’s. “We are changing the user’s life” is how this is most often heard. The language has become self-serving, ironic given that UX is meant to not be about the designers themselves but about the user.

Why are we seeing such language be used, and used so boisterously? As mentioned in the opening paragraph, UX has only recently become an “official” group within most companies. While UX has been around for a long time, it’s acknowledgment by the corporation is more recent. Thus the profession has had to utilize language that displays confidence in an effort to establish and formalize itself as part of its entry into the corporate landscape. There is without question a degree of pretentiousness and egoism exhibited by some in the design and UX professions. Is the self-righteous language we are examining the brainchild of those offenders? Perhaps, but the more plausible cause is this birth-stage of the UX profession.

Any discipline at early stages is both burdened and liberated by being able to define themselves. Software engineering is a couple decades ahead of UX and thus has had to work to establish itself within the corporation for much longer, so observing the software engineering profession can serve as a cautionary tale for UX as I believe the isolating language that developers often use has resulted in the profession shooting itself in the foot time and again with regards to its standing within the corporate hierarchy.

A common attribute of the language discussed above is moralism (or even self-aggrandizing). Whether or not this is intended, what we can see is a two-fold effect: through moralizing, you start to create a division between you and other groups (them below, you above); through using this language to establish a jargon of its own for UX, you start to become other. Creating barriers between you and other groups – isolation – is existential death within the corporation. Don’t follow the mistakes that the software engineering profession has made by rattling off technical jargon and buzzwords, feeling shocked at the business’ lack of understanding (or more accurately, caring). UX does NOT want to get the same treatment while making remarks like “yeah we just need to boost the level of empathy with this onboarding flow so that we can delight our customers a little bit more and the user’s life will be forever changed.” Do this and UX becomes “those guys creating experiences and delight for our customers… or something like that, I don’t know but they’re in the basement somewhere” rather than a partner of the business.

Furthermore, empathy and delight are not easily understand in business terms. Something like “helping remove roadblocks for users so that our products are better and get more people through the funnel” – now that is something that the business can understand AND it works in service of the user. Hopefully it is evident that vague and vacuous terms like empathy and delight are terrible word choices for a profession that is working to establish more respect for itself within an organization. The reality is that sometimes business goals cannot be ignored, and designers unfortunately cannot always make the decision that is in the best interest of the user. They can “fight for it!” sure, but it can’t always happen and this is ok.

My recommendation: get rid of the moralizing and self-aggrandizing attitude and use language that puts you on equal footing with the business while explaining the importance of paying attention to user needs. Language puffed up to display a confident attitude may have helped when UX was working to establish itself within the corporation, but it can only do a disservice now. Language plays a larger role in business than many of us wish to acknowledge, so change this before it’s too late. Before UX becomes a group that is relegated to lower rungs of the organization, rather than seen as a business partner. Understand whether users actually need empathy or delight. Dispensing with this language can only help UX in its goal of being seen as a crucial element of the business. Developers have their own self-alienating language they use, and have suffered for it. UX professionals should stop now and avoid it before it’s too late. Take a more research-driven approach to design and gather metrics (where you can). Focus less on capital UX and more on lowercase ux, that is focus less on the profession and its existentialism and more on user experience. And if you truly believe that a software application can be “life-changing,” then it is ultimately the application itself, that is to say, the product, that affects this change. That product is everybody’s job, not just UX’s.




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