How Being Empathetic Can Go Awry

Overcoming our egos as designers, marketers and managers

Empathizing with users has become a cornerstone concept dear to designers, marketers, product managers, salespeople and others in the business world. Most people these days seem to understand the immense value of user, or customer, research too.

To get value from our empathetic perspective and the insights from our research, however, we need to be aware of how our biases can unconsciously impact our perspective.

Johannes Hattula's research reminds us of the risks:

  • When Hattula primed research prospects to be empathetic, the more empathetic participants were, the more they projected their personal preferences on end-users.
  • Even when the management participants had access to independent user research, this was the case. Participants seemingly ignored the research findings or selectively interpreted the research to support their personal points of view.

It is improbable that our perspective matches all end-user interests, so it is easy to see how a design, marketing, product or sales conversation could lead to outcomes that miss the mark with these end-users.

This jibes with what I have observed of certain business founders. They came up with their product idea because they were solving a problem they experienced. They were the customer, and they hold onto this understanding (their understanding) of the customer, which may be accurate in part but not the whole picture.

Fortunately, per Hattula, there is an easy fix, at least for those with firmly held opinions: awareness. By acknowledging our tendency to replace users' needs with our needs when we put ourselves into our customers' shoes, we can check our egos.

Then, turn back to the user research (with the end-user — not ourselves —truly in mind) to improve our chances of creating the relevant and impactful user experiences we are seeking.

With our awareness of this bias:

  • Do not mistakenly imagine we are our users.
  • Do the hard work to understand our users.

Photo by Алексей Вечерин from Pexels.



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John Gauch

John Gauch


Help teams build & scale products, experience, teams and businesses | Business Manager and Business Designer | Fractional COO.