Last week at User Wizard, we hosted a panel discussion on empathy, and its meaning for us as UX and CX professionals. Our guest, Stoilka Krasteva, along with a few other participants, including Susanne Schmidt-Rauch, shared insights from their research on the topic. In this article, we summarize the learnings from this extremely fruitful discussion.

Few subjects in UX generate as much controversy as empathy. Don't get me wrong, the UX community is filled with emotionally intelligent people who demonstrate a fair amount of empathy on a daily basis. However, many of us struggle with the seemingly abusive use of the word empathy and the distorted picture it creates of the UX skillset. Let me explain…

I am empathetic, hence I am a good fit for UX work

If you’re new to UX or you are considering a career transition into this field, you will for sure have encountered this term in countless job description, course curriculum, UX portfolio and of course as the initial step of the Design Thinking process. It is not surprising that you may assimilate it as one of, if not the most important attribute of a UX professional. By attribute, I refer to a character trait, a born capacity, that makes you stand out from other human beings.

There is however a huge issue with this term, coined as a UX skill: it is fundamentally incompatible. To make my point, I would like to use the very definition of a skill, as we can find it in the Merriam-Webster dictionary: a skill is “the ability to use one's knowledge effectively and readily in execution or performance”. A skill (in a professional context) is something learned, trained, acquired, and not something one is born with. Furthermore, a skill can be demonstrated, applied, and often certified.

Now if you look-up the very definition of empathy in this dictionary, you will find that empathy, “was modeled on sympathy; it was coined in the early 20th century as a translation of the German Einfühlung (“feeling-in” or “feeling into”). First applied in contexts of philosophy, aesthetics, and psychology, empathy continues to have technical use in those fields that sympathy does not.”

As such, empathy refers to your ability, on an emotional level, to share the experience of another person. This may describe pretty well what you expect your role as a UXer to be: in fact, are we not supposed to understand what users of a product “feel, say and do”, as the famous UX artifact “empathy map” displays?

Empathy or the ability to know where the shoe pinches

At this stage, you may still be wondering what to do about your ability to connect on an emotional level with others. After all, this is definitely a very positive attribute of your personality and cannot harm your career.

What if I told you that your empathy is not universal, as in applying to literally anyone, and in fact very limited to your very own experience? To expose this argument, I would like to refer to this excellent example Stoilka run us through. It takes its reference in a German saying that says, translated to English “knowing where the shoe pinches”. This could be a good definition of empathy in a UX environment. Being an empathetic UXer, you would be perfectly able to “put yourself in the shoes of your users.” And so did Stoilka, who with her shoe size 38 (US 7.5), imagined fitting the shoes of men, wearing size 43 (US 10). This men may show signs of discomfort or even feel pain, wearing these shoes. How shall a woman with much smaller feet experience this **pain the same way? This is a very caricatural but very insightful image as it illustrates the issue with so-called empathy. Empathy is very much tight to your own ability to assimilate, apprehend and “feel” the same as the person you empathise with.