Empathy in design is a really important topic for me. It’s something that I like to write about and talk about (most recently at Voxxed Days Belgrade). To me, design is not a luxury but rather an essential need. It’s a key part of any production process, digital products included.

That’s why I think this topic is not for designers only, but for engineers as well. So If you are one of them don’t stop scrolling now!

First, let me tell you how I came to this subject. When I started working as a web designer I first thought that everything I knew as a human and as an artist is irrelevant for that AGILE-KPI-CMS-UI,UX-ish world.

Silently questions her whole existence

Silently questions her whole existence…

But wait

But wait… Doesn’t user experience mean knowing how users feel? And to know how people feel, don’t you need intuition? To grow your intuition, don’t you need empathy? And aren’t all those things basic human characteristics?

So let me go back to the basics, to the word ‘humane.’

HUMANE - showing kindness, care & empathy towards others.

The humane way of dealing with a suffering animal = the way that causes the least pain.

And isn’t empathy a great part of what makes us human?

Here’s what else makes us human:

“We, at the very core of our human nature, are totally illogical creatures.” Henry Daubrez Co-owner & Design Director at @dogstudio

Designing is an organic process more than a methodological one. You are not going to THINK or try to do the right thing, most likely you are going to FEEL the right thing.

I know this sounds cute and all…


But wait, I got facts!

The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio studied people who were perfectly normal in every way except that their brain’s emotional center was injured. They were not able to feel emotions. They also had one other interesting thing in common - they couldn’t make decisions.

This finding contradicts the belief that decision making is a rational, logical thing. Decisions are emotional.

The way I see it, some of the characteristics that make us human can also be found in things that we build or create.

And this leads me to my next point…

Products Are People, Too!

I always thought that websites are actually a form of conversation. Here’s what I mean by that.

Do you like it when someone just comes to you with a prepared talk, focusing on how perfect they are? Or do you prefer interactive conversations that involve emotions, a true exchange of thoughts, opinions, and feelings?

Websites, like people, can be one-directional in a sense that they talk at users with absolutely no regard for their feelings and their needs. On the other hand, they can also be engaging and mindful of user needs, drawing them into meaningful interactions.

In a way, we can compare a website to a real person.

Here’s a great example:

With this in mind, we at SpiceFactory focus on developing products with personality.

A good example of this is a real-time tracking app for fleet management. And how this app shows empathy is that the whole interface is like a very calm and compassionate friend who is guiding you, step by step, through the process.

(Let’s set you up! >Now locate QR code on device and scan it > Turn on your car ) It’s even asking you again, like a mom, if you need more help.

Interface, of course, should be intuitive. It’s more about giving than expecting to receive. That’s one of the rules of empathy.

Another example is showing empathy through a product’s persona. If products are people, then their personality is the experience they deliver to users.

You may have heard about our event chatbot Sava. My colleagues, developers, were working on his functionalities so that he can solve specific tasks, understand and answer user questions, and so on. But our team also spent significant time and effort to develop Sava’s personality. We wanted to make sure he is capable of empathizing with users.

For example Sava never answers with “I can’t help you with that” or “I don’t understand.” Instead, he will say something like “I’m not sure how to help you, and you must be frustrated by now. :( Do you want to see a help menu, or get in touch with a human?”

21 👦 💄 💘

Here are the results that Sava achieved assisting attendees at one tech conference:

  • 21 people continued to chat with Sava even after the conference was offer!
  • Female visitors were more likely to talk with Sava like a human being.
  • One attendee even asked Sava if he had any makeup for her to borrow!
  • A lot of people wanted to know if Sava felt love.

Now, let’s look at one other thing that can be used to show empathy in your design.

Beauty is Function, too!

As Stefan Sagmeister said, beauty is part of being human.

Beauty changes emotions, and emotions change the way human mind solves problems. First stimulus shapes the response to another stimulus.

Since always, survival was more important than understanding. That is why we first react emotionally and later think about our reaction cognitively.

The truth is that consciousness comes late, in evolution and in our mind. A lot of judgments are made before they come into our consciousness. That’s why design and first impression can have so much power.

Shaping the user’s mood before they begin an important task can help us improve user experience.

Also, sometimes beauty can beat functionality.

I will never say that beauty is more important than functionality but here’s the funny story that I love!

This is a Philippe Starcks juicer. Gold-plated version that will be clearly damaged by the acidic fluid if you try to use it for its only purpose. But as author himself said, “My juicer is not meant to squeeze lemons; it is meant to start conversations.” People are buying it and loving it.

In simple terms, well designed things make people feel good. Appearance does influence perception. When you feel good you think more creatively, and when you think creatively, it’s easier for you to solve the problems you need to solve.

Showing Empathy through Illustrations

As a designer, you can also use illustrations to evoke empathy in users.This is a great example illustrated by Zach Grahm for Dropbox.

He wanted to make people feel guilty for unsubscribing from a Dropbox Pro plan without being a jerk. He wanted them to relate to that little sad fish being stuck in a cramped space. And it really made a difference! Many people decided not to unsubscribe from Pro plan and this illustration saved the company millions of dollars.

Even though SpiceFactory is mostly about software engineers developing digital products to solve complex stuff, we do really care about our visual story. We do a lot of illustrations.

This is a style developed exclusively for SpiceFactory blog. It’s a pretty Renaissance style with the people in the center. Because that’s the message we want to send. We are inspired by our users, we feel you and we care about you, and that’s what we want to show through our apps and sites.

I’d like to share with you some of my thinking while I was designing the above illustrations. Design can help you create stronger connection through colors, form, shape, composition…

When it comes to characters, while I was developing their looks, I wanted them to have big focused eyes. They don’t even have a mouth. They are listening with their eyes and creating an atmosphere of a moment where something crucial is realized. It really draws your attention and makes you read that blog post carefully.

Voxxed Days Belgrade 2017 Rabbit Character

One example of attention grabbing design that is very dear to me is the visual identity for this year’s Voxxed Days Belgrade designed by Nemanja Jehlička. It is a courageous and innovative way of using texture and shape to deliver that driving energy and open mindedness together with creativity.

And as one of my dear mentors, Nana, said:

“It is very human-like to create the world which is unexpected, the one that is going out of the box, beyond machine logic, out of the grid, to surprise ourselves and machines, too. And those are the characteristics that will be essential for the future.”

This talk is available on YouTube:

Thx for reading, Keep it humane!

Keep it humane

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