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Exploring Empathy Part 2: Empathy for users
Exploring Empathy Part 2: Empathy for users
Brian Salts-Halcomb
Research Team

I realized early in my career that genuine compassion for users is essential. By immersing myself in the users' experiences, I gained valuable insights that helped create more effective and user-centric solutions. Balancing empathy with professional boundaries leads to more meaningful connections and a greater impact on the lives of those we serve.

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In one of my early career stops, I worked with nonprofits to configure a software system that would track their outcomes. Picture your local food bank wanting to count how many meals they served and how far their dollars stretched. My process involved discovery work with the Program Directors, building out and testing the system, and then training the “frontline” workers – like the food bank volunteers – on how to use it.

After a few projects, a pattern began to emerge… can you guess?

As elegantly and successfully as I could translate Program Directors’ needs into the system, as excited as those leaders were – implementation generally failed. The food bank volunteer didn’t understand it, or it was too much work, or the data they put in weren’t correct. Often, this resulted in the cash-strapped organization abandoning the tool within a couple years. The kicker: it also fueled a narrative that those volunteers were to blame. We needed to change these people. I feel deflated writing this. In so many ways, what a drain on the lifeblood of these organizations!

A lot changed for me when I started beginning projects by hanging out with the food bank volunteers (or similar “users” of the system). Spend a day in a fast-moving food bank, listen to the assistance being provided, and it’s easy to see why data entry might be low in priority. More subtly, it would become clear why slight tweaks to the system or the process actually increased success. And most importantly, wow, were these people amazing! They were running over from their lunch breaks or bringing their children in to try to live out their view of community.

This is the empathy lightbulb that all of user or human-centered design is built on, right? We build better things when we seek to understand the real people who will use them, and solve for those people.

As that lightbulb has grown into a profession and discipline for me, I notice similar traits across my colleagues (and I imagine you, the reader). When we have a core belief that we must place the user at the center, it’s fairly easy to have curiosity about them. People are fascinating, and as the subject of our work it becomes natural to deeply understand their experiences. This passion is generally what brings us to work, and it’s mutually reinforcing.


"For me there is also a sense of kinship with users. Prior to ever knowing anything about UX, I can recall my experience as a Microsoft Word user. Any time I made a mistake: picked the wrong command, did something to lose a file, inability to perfect the formatting etc. I blamed myself! Once I learned about the field of User Experience, I realized that those types of mistakes don’t rest solely on my shoulders (as a user), there is an aspect of the design that could be changed to better suit my needs and give me an improved experience. I think this past experience is in my unconscious mind as I research users."

So, empathy for users from first glance feels pretty easy. It’s the core of our UX work, and we all know what it’s like to be a user ourselves. But, not so fast…

Empathy Depletion

While it’s generally easy, I do recall scenarios where I simply could not muster empathy for the users I worked with.

One situation that comes to mind is a multi-year research project where the product was closely connected with the user’s worldview and belief system, and where (generally) that worldview differed from my own. In the beginning, all of what we have discussed was true: it was easy to be curious, I could get excited about what I was learning could improve the product, and I could relate to some of their perspectives. But over time, “living” in another’s worldview and needing to maintain my objectivity grew tiring. I felt exhausted trying to enter their world each day and give it the attention it deserved.

Similarly, I have had days or weeks where my research pace was simply too fast. The sharp listening at 8:00am faded into going through the motions by the last interview of the day. Empathy fades into “let’s get this over with.”

Both of these scenarios call for better boundaries. There is such a thing as being on a project for too long or scheduling too many interviews in a day.

I imagine boundaries will show up again in this series. For those in the empathy business, how do we monitor what’s left in our “bank”, and meter out that limited resource?


Another secret to UX Research is that while it’s one part the “soft skill” of empathy, it’s equally about logic and strategy, and there can be conflict in those two. For many researchers as they begin, it can be hard to know how to listen empathically, AND:

  • Steer a user away from topics that don’t matter to the research
  • Not reciprocate their vulnerability by sharing about your own life
  • Protect against over-indexing on any one user or one comment
  • Interpret when what the user says they want isn’t really what would be helpful

All of these tactics are vital to providing reliable insights, and yet perhaps a bit paradoxical with what we generally mean when we say empathy. It reminds me of a saying we had in another past job, when I was a hospital chaplain. We would talk about needing to have “one foot in the room and one foot out of the room.” As we entered with empathy for the patient’s life circumstances, we needed to protect ourselves from getting too wrapped up in them, and thus forgetting our role (and ironically, losing our very ability to provide support). I think that insight fits pretty well for how I experience empathy with users.

I wonder if that carries? Empathy for users, for clients, for ourselves – is it always about one foot in and one foot out?

What a rewarding profession. We spend our days exploring fascinating humanity and providing a level of attention to people’s experiences, attention we wish every device or service (looking at you, Department of Motor Vehicles) paid to us. Yet, it’s not always that simple.


Stay tuned next month as Chloe continues the exploration with a focus on client empathy.

Brian Salts-Halcomb

Chloe Markley

Published on October 14, 2022

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