Lately I’ve been reading quite a bit about blogging.

I love blogging, and have been wanting to do it professionally (focusing on design, of course) for years. On this, day 20 of my 30 Day Writing Challenge, I can say I’ve started to take steps towards making that happen.

One of the things that come up a lot when reading about blogging and how to write good articles is story telling.

It’s an idea oft repeated – tell stories. Even if you’re writing something informative, and very much non-fiction and non-autobiographical, tell a story.

It’s a clever little trick – tell a story and it gives something for the audience to hook onto. They’ll know you in some small way, so they’ll be more likely to remain interested in what you have to say. Plus, if the story can setup a framework for what’s about to come, then it gives them a character (you as author and star, and whomever else might have appeared in your story) upon whom the events in the article, or realisations, or lessons unfold.

It builds empathy. And if you’re a designer, empathy is something you’ve gotta have in spades.

How Stories Build Empathy.

“…fiction is primarily about selves interacting with other selves in the social world … With fiction, we enter into a world in which this [who did what and why] way of thinking predominates … If I read fiction, this kind of social thinking is what I get better at.”
— Keith Oatley.

Keith Oatley did a very cool experiment about empathy.

The University of Toronto professor had 166 people read a classic short story – The Lady with the Little Dog by Anton Chekhov. One half received the original masterpiece, while the other was given a dry, non-fiction version – something like a documentary.

A number of personality and empathy tests were performed before and after reading, and it was found that those who read the original version had significant change, finding the characters more relatable, empathising with them, becoming a little bit more like them.

This last point was shown to happen again when a group of undergraduates were split in two, half given a passage out of the Harry Potter series, the other a passage from the Twilight series.

The Potter people were later found to more quickly relate and identify themselves with concepts relating to magic and wizardry, the other half lined themselves up with notions of blood, sharper teeth, and awful, awful writing.

One of the researchers of this later study suggested that reading fiction helps us connect with an inner urge – social interactions.

Social interactions. This got me thinking. I like the idea of design being used to build a bridge upon which communication can go back and forth between the mind of the communicator and that of the listener.

And what is a social interaction if not the dance of conversation – the exchanging of one idea for another?

Design becomes the means by which conversations can occur, conversations are the means by which social interactions are had, and empathy is the means by which the ideas flow back and forth freely, allowing the ideas to become relatable.

It isn’t much of a conversation if both parties aren’t able to empathise with one another.

It all felt kind of neat. Want those ideas to float smoothly? Then you gotta be empathetic for the audience.

So how do you build empathy?

How Anyone Can Build Empathy

Read Some Fiction

The first suggestion is probably an obvious one – read some fiction! I know the studies have stated that building empathy works best when reading fiction, but I can’t imagine that biography wouldn’t help at least a little.

Biography would at least help give you some idea of how to build up a profile of potential users. I’d like to think it’ll also help us connect the dots of people’s lives before and after they use our products – where might it fit in their lives as a whole? Are we producing something that’ll be forgotten about quickly, or something that we want to have a lasting impact, one that could change their direction some how?

But back to fiction.

Some studies have shown that literary fiction is better than genre fiction. That is “writerly” writing, as opposed to “readerly” writing.

The difference between the two is an interesting one. Literary fiction is concerned with the motivations and thoughts behind the actions of the characters. We spend more time in the heads of those we read about.

Genre fiction is a little more on-the-surface than that. There’s a lot more action to be found, and the motivations of the characters may be explored, but we spend less time in their head dealing with more realistic human emotion.

But don’t be mistaken – both can be boring, and both can be brilliant.

Read anything that excites you – the worst thing someone can do with their time is to spend it reading something they don’t enjoy. There are far too many books to do such a thing. So read fiction that excites you.

Read someone’s mood up close.

Sitting across the table from a friend or coworker or the person who took your coffee order this morning, spend a couple of seconds thinking about what kind of mood they’re in.

While some of us put our moods out there for everyone to see, most of us have something hidden away, so as to not burden those around us with our concerns.

Chances are you won’t be able totally decipher what’s behind their eyes, but at least you’re practicing. You’re adding myelin to the nerves in your brain that handle the process of thinking empathetically and that’s always a good thing.

If they’re speaking with the sting of anger in the words, then ask yourself if it’s what they’re talking about that they’re really angry about, or is it something else? Or maybe they’re happy – why? What’s going through their mind?

Read Someone’s Mood From Afar

When you’re walking around downtown, or waiting in line at the checkout, look around.

Look for the most boring person you can, or the most interesting. Now imagine what excites the dullard, and what bores the peacock.

Think beyond what they look like and how they present themselves. Think about what might have gone through the minds when they picked out their clothes that morning, what they’re looking forward to, or even dreading.

Or pick anyone out at random and wonder what their day has been like based on how they’re holding themselves, and the expression on their face.

Imagine Their Day.

Find someone, anyone – maybe someone you’re friendly with, so you understand them at least a little, but not someone you know well.

Put them into a real life situation. Imagine them making their breakfast that day, drinking their coffee, kissing their partner’s goodbye before getting stuck in traffic on the way to the office.

Knowing just enough that it isn’t complete fiction that you’re making, but not well enough that it isn’t biographical either.

Small Tricks.

These are all small tricks, of course. It can’t be said enough that the point isn’t to be able to genuinely read someone, it’s to imagine being in their place, to imagine what their lives are like and how they think and how they feel.

The goal is to allow your wonderful plasticine brain to strengthen it’s ability to think empathetically.

Now let’s look at why it’ll come in handy at work.

How Can Designers Build Empathy?

We have interesting jobs, don’t we?

We can’t just make a product and hope people will use it. We need to know why and how people will use it, and we need to imagine the dozens or hundreds of different ways in which they’ll do so.

Empathy comes in handy with such things.

Think About The User’s Perspective

Before anything is even designed, before it’s even sketched out, think about what it is you want the user to do.

What are the physical or mental steps they’ll take before and after they use your product? What is it in their minds that’ll invoke a question or curiosity, and how exactly will your product solve that?

Often we’re tasked with the role of being able to both pique the interest, and resolve it. We design a beautiful poster to attract attention, then have a clever call to action to take advantage of it.

While they’re navigating through your design, be it a poster, book, or website, imagine what they’re thinking, what they’re looking for. We all work to make things findable, but it’s rarer that we ask why it should be findable and of what benefit is it to the user? We talk about hierarchy, of what’s more important within the needs of the message, but rarely do we ask why it’s more important for the user.

Consider Every Element

Look at each element that you’ve developed and asked how it might be used, how it might be looked at, how it might be thought of. Every single element.

Think good and bad. Be positive about your work and negative. Be indifferent. Then ask yourself how you’ll tackle each of these. How will you protect the element against boredom?

It’s important to know when to kill your darlings, and this means looking at each element and seeing what does grab your attention. Once you know what these elements are, ask yourself if it benefits the user in anyway. You might love how you’ve given attention to the sidebar or a secondary paragraph of text, but the user might think of it as distracting.

Listen Carefully to All Feedback

Listening carefully to feedback, without judgement, is a great way to both exercise and develop empathy.

It’s just data – I’ve been saying this a lot lately because I think it’s very important. Feedback is just data that needs to be filtered and cleaned up and then given a value.

While listening to feedback, take notes and ask questions. The user or client is rarely going to perfectly articulate the issues they’re having with your product. They’ll approximate the issue and use the language they’re familiar with.

When someone is asked to give feedback, they’ll often find something, anything, to criticise and talk about, simply because they’ve been asked to. They’ll also exaggerate, and, often, say what they think you want to hear.

The more empathetic you can be with people responding to your product, the better. Understanding where they’re coming from while working hard to not place your own values on what’s being said is a necessary step towards designing something that more people will connect to more easily.

Specific Milestones When Testing

While prototyping and testing things out with users, have specific milestones you’d like them to hit. It might be clicking a specific item in the menu, or it might be signing up to your email newsletter.

Think about the path upon which they would need to travel to hit the milestone you’re focusing on. Be very specific as to what that path is – “they’ll land on the page and put their email address here” is not a clear path.

Let’s pretend it is an email signup form. What will they go through before getting to it, and why will they care when they do? This can be done with some smart copywriting, some clever use of colour, or, more likely, both.

Small tests like this have lead to the realisation that email signup forms work best when they’re not even visible on the page (a button that says ‘sign up’ then launches a small lightbox popup with the address form is proving to be incredibly effective over having the form already visible when the page loads).

When testing, have these paths in mind. When a user does or doesn’t travel it how you thought they would, ask what made them make the decision to either engage or ignore.

It’s good to have a hunch and maybe A/B test it, but it’s even better to know what’s going on in the mind of the user as they work through it. A/B testing is stabbing in the dark and being happy when you hit something. Asking questions is turning the lights on.

You Might Know How You’ll Use Something

You might know how you’ll use something, you might know better than the average Joe on the street. You’re meant to – it’s part of the gig of being a designer.

But the people you’re trying to bridge the line of communication to aren’t going to be as sophisticated as you. It’s vitally important that you take the time to understand who they are and what they want, how they think and why they feel the way they do.

Even the smallest amount of thought in this direction will ensure that you’re not simply making something pretty, but making something functional.

So use this as an excuse to read some fiction, to sit and people watch while sipping your coffee, to genuinely listen when people talk. These tiny little things, done a few minutes at a time, might very well make you a far better designer than any book or article could.