What is empathy in design and why does it matter?

18th June 2015

Empathy relates to the emotions, intellect, identity, values, beliefs and social norms of the end user. In short, the user will look at any piece of creative design and subconsciously muse ‘Is this me? Is it a good fit? Do I feel comfortable or favourable towards it?’ It will often take only a few seconds for a user to decide and get a gut feeling about your brand, judged upon your design.

It’s good for business

Empathy is important if you want repeat business because it helps to cement long term relationships. It helps at different stages of the sales cycle – from encouraging website clicks to become enquiries and converting leads into closed sales. It’s about chemistry.

Subtle but important

Empathy is a subtle, personal thing. It might not be very important if your business is, say, a large institution or a Government function where there is little alternative or the product or service is a generic commodity – but the more personal your business is and the more you rely on word of mouth and repeat customers, the more important it is to actively consider how you will generate empathy.

Customers looking for suppliers of personal care, health and beauty, holidays, therapists, online dating, restaurants, hotels, celebrations and events, child care or pet care will have a high sensitivity to the empathy you create through your design and messaging. Small things can put them off, like a dodgy image, a grating tone of voice, a lack of detail or confusing navigation.

When you write your project brief, answer some basic questions:

  • Who are the end users? Their needs may be very different from the client paying for the design project.
  • How will the target audience interact or connect with the deliverable?
  • What is important to them when they are using it? Eg. what fears or doubts can you assuage? What high priorities can you demonstrate understanding?

Your choice of imagery, language, colour, font, structure and the format of your design can show your end user that you understand what they need and you are on the same wavelength.