How to Use Customer Empathy in Design

I've recently been taking a closer look at my website, stationery, and marketing collateral to see where I’m doing well and where I have opportunities for improvement.

It’s my number one core value to make every interaction thoughtful and unique. 

This idea should ooze out of everything I do, and show up in how I interact through email, over the phone, and even through my contract and invoices. My clients and collaborators should feel like everything I do, I do just for them. That’s a tall order – I mean, how should I know every client wants. 

Enter: Customer Empathy. 

Empathy is defined as "the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner..." (Thanks Merriam Webster

Essentially, it's walking a mile in someone else's shoes and experiencing the world the way they experience it. It's not just understanding what they go through – it's how they feel when they go through it. 

Customer empathy puts the focus on the emotional experience, over the functional experience. This does not mean that you ignore the functional experience (quality products, good customer service, and well-constructed strategies), but it does mean that you should pay special attention to the way you make people feel as they experience your product or service. 

Feelings are what motivate and inform our actions and reactions.

In design this is called Empathic Design, or User-Centered Design. An Empathic Design approach helps designers observe what an end-user experiences, and reduce their own personal bias. 

You can use empathy to inform your design decisions (and business decisions) by answering the following questions for each customer touchpoint:

  • What are they feeling?
  • What pain points do they have?
  • What questions do they have?
  • What moments of joy are they experiencing?
  • What opportunities are there for me to eliminate their pain points?

I was recently shopping online from a few different websites, and the difference in the design experience was plain to see. On some sites, I wasn’t sure if my order went through because the confirmation page wasn’t clear. On others, I really wanted to know when to expect delivery. But there was no tracking number and no estimated arrival date. Bummer. 

Imagine if the designers of those websites took just a little bit of extra time to consider the pain points and frustrations of their customers. 

Remember, a good design experience should be easy – enjoyable – invisible.  

AirBNB uses customer empathy to make their designs more trustworthy. They’ve experienced what hosts experience when they open their home to new people, and they took those concerns and turned them into trust-building website features. Watch the TED Talk below to see how:

In what ways could you improve your design experience with customer empathy?