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Empathy and web design

· Web Dev Zone

Although different people assume different things when it comes to design, the fact is that good design is often thought to be decorative and aesthetic. This applies to design in general so web design is no different. We admire beautiful design solutions that are mostly nothing more than eye-candy. Seems as if primary goals of many web designers are creating beauty and satisfying clients' needs where the client is often mistakenly considered to be an actual user.

Too often the essence of web design comes down to "Genius design" where everything depends on the designer's experience, appraisal and sensibility. It is not uncommon that web designers are people who have large egos. On one hand, ego is useful because it implies self-confidence, pride and expertise, but on the other it is very damaging because it also implies arrogance and selfishness which is contrary to the nature of design. One of the statements by a web designer/developer I have heard recently, explains this in an explicit way:

There is a warning... if people don't bother to read it, it's not my problem. I made it red, should be spotted better now."


If it is not our problem then it becomes a problem of our users and that is bad design. Design should solve problems rather than create them.

Also, the fact is that low barriers to entry allow large number of people to easily become web designers or developers which creates the impression that everyone can do it with minimum effort. One can relatively quickly gain solid Photoshop or HTML skills (and even master them), but that is not enough for a good design.

What's missing?

A good design requires knowledge of various design techniques, design principles, business requirements, technical constraints and the most important, understanding users, their problems, motifs and eventually goals. Understanding people (in this case users) to the extent that we can understand and share their emotions is empathy. That is an essential characteristic needed for a successful design, yet many web designers miss it. I would go even further and say that humility and overcoming your own ego are necessities. At least, it is necessary to create a balance between ego and empathy.

In order to understand users we need to understand their needs and goals that are often hidden - the user is not aware of them. It's designer's imperative to discover those goals. The best way to understand the users (and probably most popular among designers) is observation. By observing how people use products in their natural environments, a designer is able to get into other peoples' shoes and see what otherwise would be incomprehensible.

Observation, careful listening and talking with people give us insights into a completely different perspective. Through analysis of data obtained by observation we are able to explore various solutions, develop prototypes and evaluate them through testing. This is the basis for User-centric design. And it all begins with empathy.

Fortunately, there are attempts to emphasize the importance of users and show that users are not idiots but we need even more than that. Always keep in mind that we are advocates for the users instead of being advocates for the clients. Empathy comes after walking a mile in someone’s shoes. Get in those shoes.

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Published at DZone with permission of Janko Jovanovic. See the original article here.

Opinions expressed by DZone contributors are their own.

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