Let's Talk About Empathy

Angela Madsen // April 2018

Personas are the UX Designer’s primary tool to help people wrap their heads around empathy, but they aren’t perfect. They get co-opted by Marketing into overly detailed, retitled demographics stories; pshawed by people who “don’t believe in warm fuzzies”; individuals get caught up in the pictures and make connections that throw off the empathy. Empathy has an important function as we troubleshoot systems because it is helping to uncover emotionally-based cognitive bias. 

As individuals we are a byproduct of human nature, enculturation, experience, and how we wrapped our heads around our experience. Individuals conglomerate to create cultures, which can be attributes of your circle of friends, your family, or your coworkers, as well as the broader and less individually maintained aspects of city, region, language. Individuals and cultures feed each other; individuals affect culture, culture affects individuals, and it’s hard to suss out where they divide.

The informing factors to my approach

Empathy schmempathy

Is empathy transcultural? There is a serious case building for this idea, with one end of the spectrum being a pivot point in a psycho-cultural model of society (curious? Start here: Transcultural Psychiatry - Anthropology - iResearchNet, and the other end a physical manifestation via mirror neurons. One side is archetypical, the other physical, with both theories being solid suggestions as to why empathy is boundless).

The psycho-cultural model of society (a theory that there are intrinsic aspects of human personality that inform human experience on a proto-cultural level) has been around since the mid 1960’s. Cultural psychology is an accepted social science. The fact that it’s a social science means it’s a soft science, considered more hypothesis than theory because the underlying data points are sometimes not exclusively data and can incorporate accepted opinion. That said, there are instances where applied cultural psychology have made impacts. The current cultural dichotomy between Trump America and News America is a prime case in point; the co-opting of the rallying cry of “fake news” by the very people who originally digested fake news, now applying to the rest of America is applied cultural psychology in action. It’s very power is a case that the underlying accepted opinions are fast solidifying into fact.

There is a huge amount of debate about mirror neurons, with some hypothesizing that they are even the basis of civilization and language (Vilayanur Ramachandran: The neurons that shaped civilization | TED Talk). The other edge of the argument is that they may not even exist in human anatomy (Eight Problems for the Mirror Neuron Theory of Action Understanding in Monkeys and Humans). Mirror neurons are relatively new in hypothesis of cognitive models, and have been directly observed in multiple species, with activity consistent with the models observed in several areas of the human brain.

The idea is that mirror neurons are the reason why you yawn when you see/hear someone else yawning, or why you cringe when another person is approached with a syringe with a 5” needle. They are specific neurons that fire to enable learning by imitation. While the two extreme theories start to bridge our understanding of the function of empathy, it’s still reasonable to look at empathy as a practical application that can be leveraged by anyone trying to solve problems. Social learning is an accepted - and even cross-species - theory (Social learning in humans and other animals), and I am personally excited about the idea of mirror neurons as a posited physical pathway. People learn by imitation, and I think it’s reasonable to consider empathy as a nuanced deep-dive imitation. I also think this aligns with how UX research uses empathy as a data and decision tool. 

Acknowledging empathy confusion

Personas cause confusion because empathy is confusing - or specifically how to navigate the accepted constructs of how empathy is supposed to affect decision making while empathizing with multiple disparate and often conflicting someones, and the accepted norms of what is supposed to happen to our personal point of view (i.e., empathy is supposed to change us). 

I think the reason people get all twisted up about empathy and ultimately find reasons to not leverage it is because of what happens when they acknowledge the empathic impact but choose another action anyway.

The response breaks into process pretty easily, and escalation happens in the widening arc of people - with their empathy tweaked - brought into play.

  • Tweak heartstrings
  • Impugn character
  • Register hurt
  • Register anger
  • Turn to others and run the same gamut

Empathy as a tool

The empathy I’m talking about is not the version of liking someone, nor is it getting someone to like you. It’s not morality (although it can lead to morality (Why You Shouldn’t Curb Your Compassion | Greater Good Magazine) It is merely understanding where someone is coming from well enough to get a grip on the source of their emotional response; as part of the process, you might feel their point of view. If you can understand the nuances of their point of view, you can better grasp where their cognitive biases are kicking in and use that to help see and solve the real issues. If you are in the problem solving process, empathy is gathering data points to scale the ladder of knowledge. Each person you are empathizing with is not the sole input. You have to go back and use your understanding and find balances across a broad spectrum of people, processes, and technologies to find areas that can improve experience. If we tried to fix everything in one fell swoop it would take forever to build and the potential for failure escalates. Iterative changes with ongoing temperature checks help to focus development, and sometime the smallest changes will make the biggest impacts.


It is instinctual to imitate to gain understanding and go where others have found a successful path. When we’re using empathy as a learning curve, we’re also requiring of ourselves the shelving of cognitive biases, which exist to speed understanding and help us survive. And after the hard internal work, the external reaction is that people will feel falsified, which can result in savage words or even behavior. Break this apart, and we are:

  • countering instinct,
  • questioning everything, including your own deeply held beliefs
  • requiring more time to get to a possible solution, and;
  • inviting hostility.

All while actively seeking to empathize with people who are dichotomously opposed to each other. You will encounter hostility and invite a succession of bad days. 

This is not a comfort zone. It takes courage, strength, adaptability, resilience, a never-ending learning curve, creativity, knowledge, and self-awareness as a starting point. Add some altruism - it’ll help when someone impugns your character for seeing their point of view but not making an entire process revolve around them. Then people come in and throw everything you’ve readied into disarray, and you need to think on your feet and not reactively.

Did I mention it was hard? How about that empathy as a learning curve isn’t for everyone? Trusting a good UX designer is a handy substitute for navigating this process yourself, and a good UX designer will be able to explain their decision making process for the details. Although, yes, sometimes it will be off the cuff; we may be navigating more cognizantly, but our subconscious still has the higher processing bandwidth. Asking us questions can illuminate where we were relying too heavily on our id and possibly not removing cognitive bias.

In the end, what understanding empathy really tells us is that no one person can figure it all out.

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