How can developers develop empathy and why is it important

In this article, I will talk about how empathy is crucial in identifying the target user’s needs and preferences. Additionally, I would like to mention one powerful tool in keeping track by building user personas.

What is Empathy?

Empathy is often be confused with sympathy, but it is two different things. According to, sympathy is a feeling of concern for someone else and often accompanied by the thought to make them happier, while empathy involves sharing other’s emotions. Some would put it simply by define empathy as try to walk in other people’s shoes.

What is a User Persona?

Before we move on to the connection between empathy and personas, we should define a user persona first. A user persona is a representation of your target user. It is a made-up character but consists of your target user’s goals, motivations, and frustrations. Persona has all of the relevant information whenever we want to make decisions based on the user’s interests.

Why Empathy?

When you search on how to build a user persona, it is often just telling you to gather data using user research then make some personas out of it. But they were missing out on the point of how to understand what the users need when conducting the user research. As stated in, most designers that enter the UX field would have difficulties in kicking off their research phase because of the lack of knowledge, even if they are killers as visual designers.

If you have heard of the Design Thinking process, you would know that the first step is to empathize. But it is more than that. Whether you are following the Design Thinking framework or any frameworks in this world, recognizing the user goals and pain points is needed.

Some would say if you have been working on the product for a while, you might have enough knowledge to make assumptions about your users and build personas based on them. But I believe that empathy enables us to have a deep understanding of the users and comes up with ideas to effectively removing their frustrations. I read this brilliant book: Everyday Emotional Intelligence (Harvard Business Review) that three types of empathy put up the Empathy Triad.

  1. Cognitive empathy: Ability to understand another person’s perspective
  2. Emotional empathy: Ability to feel what someone else feel
  3. Empathic concern: Ability to sense what another person needs from you

Imagine how divine and impactful your user persona would be if the three of them are combined. To sums up, building a persona with empathizing can lead to minimizing rework and a product that solves the user’s true needs.

Developing Empathy to Build Persona

Without further ado, here are the steps of developing empathy to construct an unbiased persona.

1. Admit that we are biased

Biases are often unconscious. Be honest with yourself. We are not our users. If you wish to learn how to improve empathy in general, you can read the NY Times guide.

2. Qualitative more than Quantitative

It is possible to make a form asking people their preferences. With all going online due to the pandemic, you can easily share it with dozens or even hundreds of people.

I am not saying that quantitative research methods are useless. But if you want to develop your empathy and deeply understand the users, it is preferable to conduct focused user research using qualitative research methods. The most common methods are user interviews or diary studies. Also, try to ask non-leading, open-ended, and meaningful questions. For example: Ask “what makes you happy?” instead of “are you happy?”.

3. Demographic data claim that authentic demographic data is critical to developing true empathy. A persona should include the user’s name, photo, age, sex, income, location, job status, and some other attributes that are relevant to your industry. We also can include their preferred brands or influencers. It is helpful if we want to learn the brands’ strategies that might apply to our product.

4. Construct Empathy Map / Card Sorting

After gathering user data, do an empathy mapping. Traditional empathy maps are split into Says, Thinks, Does, and Feels. But you can also do Card Sorting methods and write down everything you know about your target users, including their emotions, hopes, and fears. Learn more about Empathy Map in this post and Card Sorting in this post.

5. Identify Patterns

Conclude your empathy map and arrange pieces of information of different groups of people. Each persona represents one group of people. Keep in mind that persona is about your target users and sometimes also the stakeholders, not some kind of random groups of people. Bring together user goals, motivations, frustrations to help you decide how the users are more likely to use your product to improves their life.

6. Here comes the technical part…

To build or specifically to design the user persona, I most often use Figma. If you were familiar with Adobe Illustrator or Affinity Designer, you can make it there as well. After doing some searches, some online tools can help you make personas too. You can use Xtensio or people-made templates on Pinterest or Dribbble, such as this one.

Okay, that is all for today’s article. Sorry for any mistakes, super open to any feedback (including grammar! hehe). I am aware that empathy is a complex skill. But even the researchers believe that we can choose to cultivate empathy. It is a note for you and me personally as well to try to practice empathy using the NY Times guide I mentioned earlier. Have a nice day! :)

Computer Science Student at University of Indonesia

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