UX: Empathy is not Sympathy

Empathy is the latest buzzword in UX. We all get sick of buzzwords pretty quick nowadays – so we tend to make up replacement words. The problem is there really isn’t a good replacement word for empathy. It’s one-of-a-kind.

The second problem is, a great many of very smart people mistake empathy for sympathy. Here’s what the dictionary has to say about empathy vs. sympathy:

Both empathy and sympathy are feelings concerning other people. Sympathy is literally ‘feeling with’ – compassion for or commiseration with another person. Empathy, by contrast, is literally ‘feeling into’ – the ability to project one’s personality into another person and more fully understand that person.

So when someone tell you that you need empathy to be a good UX professional, they are not tell you that you need to feel the users’ plight even though you’ve not experienced it. What they are saying is you need to have the ability to draw on similar experiences to understand what it is that makes them tick.

Think of it this way. Empathy is what you fell when you’ve “been there”, sympathy is when you haven’t. Empathy is a feeling derived from shared experience. Sympathy is an emotion derived from imagining what someone must be going through.

So why is empathy more important than sympathy concerning good UX? Because it’s difficult create a great user experience based on sympathy; but sharing the experience with the user allows you to see it through their eyes.

Note: I’d like to thank Robert Coop who posed a fascinating question in the User Experience LinkedIn group.

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