How to Design with Empathy


Hooman Anvar is not only a User Experience (UX) design thought leader, but he’s also a good-hearted person. I met him because he was one of the winners of our Inventathon competition. Afterwards, he told me that he wanted to further deepen his design practice into building products and services to change and improve people’s lives. He’s an ideal person to work on that mission as his approach to UX is based on designing with empathy. In this interview, he’ll tell you what that means and how to apply it to you life.

BlackBoxPhD 3-Point Checklist: How to Design with Empathy

  1. It’s not just about aesthetics. User Experience design isn’t just about creating polished graphics, it’s also about empathizing with the user and creating solutions for their needs.
  2. Think about who the users are and their perspective. Designing for empathy is considering your users and understanding their point of view.
  3. You can learn how to design with empathy. A first step is to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes.

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Hooman, tell us about your background and work.

I’m a User Experience Architect which means I’m the creative vision behind the products and services that people use. In other words, I use design to solve complex problems into usable and useful products and services for people.

I had an early start in the digital arena and helped launch many new ventures like and I also had the opportunity to work at innovative organizations like eBay and Cisco. I’ve been fortunate to have millions of people use my designs and have millions of transactions go through them.

I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in Biological Basis of Behavior. This field is an interdisciplinary study in neuroscience mixing medicine, anthropology, sociology, psychology and mathematics.

I’m also an avid photographer and take thousands of photos every year, mostly of rescue dogs, landscapes and glorious San Diego sunsets.

What is User Experience design and why is it an important consideration?
User Experience is designing through understanding the needs, motivations, desires and tasks of the people who will be interacting with a product or service. The aim is to delight the user by satisfying their needs and removing pain points. In the simplest terms, the business offering a product or service then gains loyalty, patronage and wins more business.

The process starts as methodical and analytical when we are doing research and inquiry into understanding the users. Conversely, when solving the problems that are discovered and creating innovative offerings is a highly imaginative process.
user perspective
You said you take a “design with empathy” approach to creating designs for products. What does that mean?
Essentially, “design with empathy” means consider your audience and their point of view when creating an offering. Whether you’re a doctor interacting with patients, an architect designing a building, an engineer making a car, or a startup creating a new app, empathizing with the people you, your products, and your services will interact with will help you succeed.

Imagine the product or service from their point of view and how they might experience it. How will they see it? How will they use it? Would they find it useful? Would they find it frustrating or easy? How many decisions do they have to make? How could you better align with their expectations to make their experience easier, more comfortable, more usable?

Does this relate only to technology products like mobile apps and websites, or can you design for empathy in other areas?
Definitely not. It’s applicable in a wide variety of places. Today, the term “User Experience” design is mainly used in the digital space. However, anywhere people are the end users of an offering, this can be applied. In fact, there are already many related human-centered disciplines like Industrial Design, Organizational Psychology and Ergonomic Design that apply similar thinking to their business.

There are many schools of thought on design methods and techniques, on building and scaling business, and developing and launching a technology. At the core of all these is the user, the customer, the human that uses the systems, the products, the services. And each have their flavor of problems to solve.

Using UX as an approach for solving these problems across design, business and technology can yield innovative, unique, insightful and potentially competitively advantageous offerings. The famed product design firm, IDEO, calls this “Design Thinking.”

Is designing for empathy something that makes the difference between good and bad designs? If yes, how so?
Yes. Everything is designed regardless of if there is a “designer” doing it or not. The act of creating is design. Easy, smooth, inviting, successful, and low-barrier-to-use human interaction is the result of good design. Difficult, frustrating, confusing, impeded human interaction is the result of bad design. Good design reduces difficulty while supporting the user in completing their tasks. It satisfies the needs and desires of the user with ease for the user. And if it creates a sense of enjoyment and wonder then it is the result of great design.

Why is this important? Beyond the altruistic reasons for creating ease for people, the benefit to the business offering is real. People will preferentially use and reward products and services that are easier, more usable and more useful to them.

Are people born being able to or not being able to design this way. Or can it be learned?
Yes, but some more than others. Like any ability, we are all born with different aptitudes. I believe that empathy and imagination is a universal human quality. In fact they’re intertwined. We can empathize with the joy or pain of another person without having directly experienced the same event. In essence, we experience joy or pain while we empathize. It is core to our human experience.
Another part of our core biology is creativity. Vocations from those conventionally seen as “creative” to those seen as “prosaic” all require imagination and creativity. For example, a business person imagines in her mind different scenarios of how her business could scale a new product. Or a developer imagines how his code would render in the browser as he writes the code. These are creative processes rooted in imagination. And they are expressed with different aptitudes and flavors.

Like any innate ability, empathy and creativity are skills that need to be fostered, refined and practiced in order to reach mastery. And with any skill some people have better intuition and propensity towards design than others. However, it is not a monopoly, reserved for the elite few. Everyone can participate, and the masters who have refined, fostered, and grown their skills can guide and teach others.

What are some steps that people can take in their lives to learn how to design with empathy?
It’s a practice and it’s a process. Learn how to know your users. Learn how to understand their needs, their motivations, their mindsets and their tasks. Imagine yourself as the user and advocate on their behalf. This field is relatively new, however, there is a plethora of information free for learning out there. Read and immerse yourself in the knowledge.

Imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes. Suspend your existing understanding, prejudices and opinions of your product, and then interact with your product as if you are the user. Imagine their environment, their mindset, their needs and then measure in your mind how well your product or service delivers.

Nothing replaces practicing it and seeing for yourself the positive impact designing with empathy will have on your product or service offerings.


About BlackBoxPhD

I’m Sean Young, PhD, behavioral psychologist, educator, and Director of the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior. I’ve worked with some amazing collaborators and friends on how to apply psychology in life.

I’m inviting you to online fireside chats with them to give you a sneak peak into their brilliant minds and help you improve your life, work, and relationships.

Together, we’ll interview experts in psychology, health, technology, and business. We’ll leave you with weekly take-home points to teach you about Psychology, Products, and People.

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