Experience Design

Cultivating empathy with your users

User experience, at its best, is about empathy with the people who use the products and services we design. However, not all organizations start a user experience practice with empathy as a goal. Of the many options to cultivate empathy in your organization, consider how you talk about the practice of user experience design. This is not an academic exercise in semantics. Words frame how we understand and relate to things around us. The following are words and phrases that I’ve found important to building empathy in a user experience practice and with the teams I work with.
Usability testing, not user testing. “System testing” can be rephrased “testing the system,” showing that system as the subject of the testing. When considering the testing activity in a user experience practice, the phrase “usability testing” accurately describes what is being tested, the usability of the design. Users are not being tested, so “user testing” indicates the wrong test subject. Users are more correctly testers, much as they are in user acceptance testing. Of course, they are rarely referred to as testers, which leads to my next word…

Dictionary page showing definition of human

Hemera Technologies/Photos.com


Participant, not subject.  Some people refer to users who participate in a usability test as “subjects.” This term derives from the behavioral research roots of usability testing. The techniques of such research, not humans as the object of the test, inform usability testing. A better term is “participant.”
Miscues, not errors. Because the subject of a usability test is the product design not the user, reporting the results should reflect that distinction. Many experience usability testers record the errors made in usability testing, understanding that this means the errors in design. To err is human, as the saying goes, so the term “error” can suggest that the participant made mistakes, making it easier to avoid recognizing a flawed design. When you refer to problems in terms of “miscues,” however, the connotation is that the design failed to correctly guide a user at best or, at worst, completely misleads test participants off the happy path (a good related phrase, don’t you think?) of the test and the intention for task completion.
Users? Brevity alone will likely ensure “users” is not replaced by “people who use our product” in the technology lexicon. On the other hand, focus on the role can sometime distract from understanding that users are humans first. David Pogue, technology columnist for the New York Times, stated in a keynote speech a few years ago that we should reconsider calling the people who use our products “users.” He pointed out that the only other industry that refers to its clientele this way is the drug trade. While the technology context likely prevents too much confusion, emphasizing humanity over a role makes a difference. The same rationale can make personas resonate with your team members by replacing the abstract role of user with the image of a realistic person. When we focus on the humanity of users, we are no longer able to dismiss their discomfort, blame them for “erring” when they were misled to the wrong conclusion, or mistake them for “subjects” rather than recognize our designs as the target of our testing and the source of any issues.
A user experience practice should cultivate empathy for users in your team. Even if you always picture the woman who gave you great insight on a site visit when you talk about recruiting usability test “subjects” or the man who articulated so clearly why the design would not support his work when he “erred” during  test, your team may not have the same depth of understanding. By using words respectfully, precisely, and with empathy toward the people who will use our designs, we cultivate the kind of user-oriented culture that is needed to build fantastic experiences and great products.
What words do you find help build empathy with your customers and cultivate your team’s understanding of the people, the actual humans, who use the products you design and develop?

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Karen Bachmann

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