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UX Bites #2 ‘Building user empathy and understanding’ – Video and Q+A

UX Bites #2 ‘Building user empathy and understanding’ – Video and Q+A

Our new fortnightly webinar series UX Bites has been a bigger hit than we anticipated, due in no small part to the amount of engagement we’ve had from our audiences. Over 100 people tuned in to our second webinar last week (03.06.2020) and we had some really excellent questions sent in around the topic of our discussion: building user empathy and understanding.

Building user empathy and understanding

Uncovering the ‘human stories’ behind digital and service experiences is where you can really understand why a user is doing what they are doing. In Webinar #2 we demonstrated the business case for investing time in user research and showed some key methods, techniques and artefacts that UX practitioners can use to gain more empathy with users.


Video: UX Bites by Fathom webinar 2: Building user empathy and understanding. Retrieved from Fathom’s YouTube channel


The subject of user empathy clearly resonated with a lot of our viewers. We’ve posted some of our favourite questions below along with responses from our hosts: MT McCann (UX Lead) and Andrew McCrea (UX Strategist).

Q1. How do you uncover implicit things during interviews? How do I know that I’m not making things up?

A1. This is a great question and there are a few strands to this. Firstly, active listening requires practice. It isn’t easy and it depends on deep focus after you have asked a question to understand the actual user needs underpinning what the participant has told you. Observe body language during the session and take time to listen back later to analyse and tag your recording. 

If you can observe a user’s behaviour with a product or service before or after qualitative research this can also help uncover their unconscious feelings, barriers or opportunities, which they may not be articulating verbally. Lastly if you can, partner with another researcher to identify and tag the original recording or observation session, and then compare notes to discuss any anomalies in your analysis / and / or red flags.

Q2. What happens if you think the person you are interviewing is simply wrong?

A2. We can all let our own biases creep in and sometimes we might be right, but sometimes we will be wrong. We have to remember as UX professionals that we exist to make products and services easier for users, whose needs and behaviours will be different than our own. Remain resolute to the process and let research guide the way. 

In any qualitative or quantitative research method we should have a number of participants in our research cohort, and after we have captured our data we should be searching for patterns across the group. So capture everything and assess the relevance of all participants’ feedback when in synthesis. An outlier anecdote should still be captured and analysed, so that in future studies we can look for other instances that may exist outside of the original cohort.

Q3. What is the difference between observation / ethnography and organisation contextual inquiries? Does one include the other or are they two different things?

A3. We define observation / ethnography as a method of observing the interactions of users in a given environment. This research is generative in its nature as it provides an in–depth insight into the user’s views and actions along with the sights, sounds and events they encounter during their day. It allows UX professionals a way of understanding how a particular group of users in a given situation see the world and how they interact with everything around them. 

We define contextual inquiries as an evaluative and semi–structured interview method to obtain information about a specific product or service’s context of use in a set environment. We typically ask users a set of standard questions and then observe and ask questions while they work in their own environments.

Q4. Any tips in making users feel less like they are in a test situation? Particularly ‘in the wild’– I have found that users often put on a show when they are taking part in user research and behaving as a caricature version of themselves or a very muted version. I am concerned that I am trying to empathise with an inaccurate representation of the users and that my designs or advice will reflect this.

A4. It depends on what stage of a project you are in. If you’re trying to learn early stage insights about where a problem may lie, try to assimilate into the user’s environment as much as possible. Spend a few hours across different times of the day observing and taking notes on their behaviour, needs, challenges they may encounter and their interactions with others. 

If on the other hand you are in the evaluative stage of a project and you want to get direct feedback on their use of a product or service, firstly work really hard on building rapport with the user so that they know it isn’t them that is being tested; rather, it’s the product or service that needs to improve to work better for that user. 

If budget allows, set a number of times during a week where you can visit the user in their environment to see if the pattern of behaviour is the same. You could also seek to pair your qualitative observational research with diary studies, which would allow you to analyse your observations against the detail a participant has recorded during the day / week / month.

Q5. What if the observation of a business process requires the change of the business, not just the digitisation of the process?

A5. The question is pregnant with the answer. Digitisation of any process is not without consequences to a business in terms of process and the myriad factors around that, from resourcing, to training, to user migration, to a new way. So any process which may seem like digitisation should always be designed with the system in mind. 

Also, as we discussed in webinar #1 and touched on in this webinar, try and use more than one research method to fully understand a user and their problems and context of use.

Q6. How do you approach empathy and cultural differences whereby you may be dealing with customers across the globe who all have different beliefs, views on the world and resources etc. Where is the best place to start here?

A6. I would say that the best place to start is with open, non–leading interviews with segments of customers from your key sales regions. The goal will be to understand values and attitudes towards life and business and their fears and diffoculties. Consolidating findings, creating empathy maps of these segmented user types (stick with empathy maps, before any transition towards a persona for this) and then sharing with internal stakeholders. Support this with primary evidence of insight. It will help to reinforce the empathy–influenced interface and content design needed to be interwoven into any solutions.

Q7. This is a great subject, especially in the global context these days, thank you for the webinar. How can we (as designers, researchers) be more empathetic towards different ethnic groups, cultures and be more inclusive when researching / designing?

A7. There is no easy answer to this, but you could as UX teams or individuals have a mindset to actively seek out this diversity and score yourself each time on diversity for differences, rather than see it as random sampling. When creating briefs for early stage qualitative research, or when testing behaviours and usability, ensure diversity is in the brief and also cover those most in need, who are typically impaired by mobility or cognitive and sensory factors. To be more empathetic when practicing UX, we hope the slides provide the foundations to train yourself and to integrate empathy into your processes.

(Thanks for the feedback on the webinar, glad there was value in it for you).

Q8. Hi, I was wondering if you have any advice on how to effectively empathise with users through online workshops etc. as we are lacking physical meetings therefore things could be missed?

A8. When working with users and stakeholders, trying to build empathy through online sessions can be a challenge. Regardless of the physical or remote context, understanding and really trying to feel what a user feels is the most important thing. Try to encourage as much webcam time as possible to allow someone’s feelings to be represented on a human level and to create more rapport for them to open up. 

If you’re capturing live artefacts in a session, develop a consistent visual hierarchy using colour, emojis or scales to help define the feeling behind an experience or a situation. Remote brings its challenges, but if you add other visual and digitised artefacts to the sessions, on occasions you might be able to get closer to empathising with your users, even more than if you were with them in person.

Q9. What if you don’t possess humility?

A9. Humility is a key trait required by a UX professional to be able to recognise that we are not the user, and that our opinion on user needs is redundant. It is also important to be able to work in a team and be able to share and ask for feedback while encouraging and supporting your colleagues during projects. 

UX professionals need to be able to set aside their own biases and put themselves in their users situations and share those needs empathically with others, with the awareness that you see the world differently and that is ok.

Q10. What is the average number of people / users you must interview to gain a better understanding of their needs before designing the product?

A10. There are two conflicting professional opinions on this point. In Fathom we seek to observe, test and interview as many users as budget allows, while achieving an equal representation of users that match the use case of the product or service. For more reading on Jacob Nielsen’s point of view (of NN/g) check out this article on the topic. Jared Spool has a different take, which you can read more about on his blog.

Q11. Is it possible to access recordings from the previous webinar even if I haven’t registered for them?

A11. Yes, all of our previous webinars can be accessed through our YouTube channel and for details about our last webinar, please see our UX Bites webinar #1 blog article where you can watch the full video and read the Q+A.

Find us on YouTube

You can watch more of our webinars and talks about UX and service design on our YouTube channel.


By Andy Robinson

Andy was a UX Researcher with Fathom until July 2021, when he moved on to take up a role at Rapid7.

View more insights by Andy

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