Empathy and web design

August 25, 2010

Although different people assume different things when it comes to design, the fact is that good design is often thought to be decorative and aesthetic. This applies to design in general so web design is no different. We admire beautiful design solutions that are mostly nothing more than eye-candy. Seems as if primary goals of many web designers are creating beauty and satisfying clients’ needs where the client is often mistakenly considered to be an actual user.

Too often the essence of web design comes down to “Genius design” where everything depends on the designer’s experience, appraisal and sensibility. It is not uncommon that web designers are people who have large egos. On one hand, ego is useful because it implies self-confidence, pride and expertise, but on the other it is very damaging because it also implies arrogance and selfishness which is contrary to the nature of design. One of the statements by a web designer/developer I have heard recently, explains this in an explicit way:

There is a warning… if people don’t bother to read it, it’s not my problem. I made it red, should be spotted better now.”

If it is not our problem then it becomes a problem of our users and that is bad design. Design should solve problems rather than create them.

Also, the fact is that low barriers to entry allow large number of people to easily become web designers or developers which creates the impression that everyone can do it with minimum effort. One can relatively quickly gain solid Photoshop or HTML skills (and even master them), but that is not enough for a good design.

What’s missing?

A good design requires knowledge of various design techniques, design principles, business requirements, technical constraints and the most important, understanding users, their problems, motifs and eventually goals. Understanding people (in this case users) to the extent that we can understand and share their emotions is empathy. That is an essential characteristic needed for a successful design, yet many web designers miss it. I would go even further and say that humility and overcoming your own ego are necessities. At least, it is necessary to create a balance between ego and empathy.

In order to understand users we need to understand their needs and goals that are often hidden – the user is not aware of them. It’s designer’s imperative to discover those goals. The best way to understand the users (and probably most popular among designers) is observation. By observing how people use products in their natural environments, a designer is able to get into other peoples’ shoes and see what otherwise would be incomprehensible.

Observation, careful listening and talking with people give us insights into a completely different perspective. Through analysis of data obtained by observation we are able to explore various solutions, develop prototypes and evaluate them through testing. This is the basis for User-centric design. And it all begins with empathy.

Fortunately, there are attempts to emphasize the importance of users and show that users are not idiots but we need even more than that. Always keep in mind that we are advocates for the users instead of being advocates for the clients. Empathy comes after walking a mile in someone’s shoes. Get in those shoes.

Let's discuss this on twitter.


  • Joe (August 25, 2010)

    Nice article.
    "Get in those shoes." would make a fantastic nerdy Tshirt btw.

  • DesignMango (August 26, 2010)

    Really inspiring article!

  • Iva (August 26, 2010)

    I’ve been against such subjective approach for years – then again, I think most of today’s prominent designers have conscience and an understanding of their users’ intelligence, common browsing patterns and problems…and, if they don’t, they’re learning on their mistakes.

    It’s the huge-money-in-a-day, everything-should-be-Flash and my-Twilight-site kind of people who ruin it and spread the virus faster than you can say WTflu. Obscure navigation, super-tiny fonts…

    (Ćao! O/)

  • Mr Portman (August 26, 2010)

    I’m researching web design in primary education in the UK, and I’m mostly finding the sites are being built by whoever in school is enthusiastic about computers. As anyone can build a site with Dreamweaver, why not? I suspect Joe Public’s perception of web design is that it’s simply a technical skill, unlike graphic design where people assume a less accessible level of expertise (some of which will be the ability to empathise with the audience).

    The problem is the sites being built by non-specialists are normally very poorly designed, with one of the biggest problems being zero empathy for the visitor.

  • Matthew Meeks (August 26, 2010)

    Sometimes even sites built by specialists, even quite talented designers will lack empathy. Some of this is due to talented designers lacking empathy for the end user in favor of the "cool" factor, some is also due to clients. I’ve had clients insist on having half the things on the page animated, or having an all Flash splash screen, or even worse things, all because they liked them and thought they were cool, regardless of what their target audience might think, or what impact that would have on search rankings, usability, or even aesthetics.

    “Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way when you criticize them, you are a mile away from them and you have their shoes.” -Jack Handy

  • Dwayne (August 27, 2010)

    The reason most web designers design to satisfy the needs of the client and not have the end-user in mind is because the designer works for a company that needs to make money.

    If you’re not designing what the client wants, the company will lose out on cash and you’ll lose out on being employed. It is sadly how the world goes, there simply aren’t enough businesses that will let their employee’s do whatever they want and go against the clients wants and needs.

  • Bill (August 27, 2010)

    So you’re saying "you can only do so much" is not true?

  • Cam (August 27, 2010)

    I completely agree with the idea that user-centric design, ‘walking in the users shoes’, is crucial to good design. But I’m not sure this is anything new. The idea that people think that ‘good design is decorative and aesthetic’ doesn’t tally with the feedback I’ve had in user testing and focus groups. People / Users are getting much more specific about how the websites they use should be designed and can clearly identify the benefit of a well designed website against a flashy but ultimately unusable one.

    Also, the idea that designers all have ‘big egos’ is a stereotype and could be self perpetuating. The designers I’ve worked with have almost all been collaborative and open about the work they do. However, the quote given in the article is pretty damning (I’ve written it in red), I’m just concerned that it’s damning a majority rather than a minority.

    And finally, clients. The idea that a client, especially one in the private sector, would be ‘satisfied’ with ‘beauty’ rather than usability also seems a little outdated. Any client that is not aware of the direct relation of user-centric design to their bottom line shouldn’t take too long to be convinced. If this isn’t happening it’s not the fault of the designer, but rather the fault of the people developing or managing the account i.e. people like me. If you gave a client the choice between a pretty looking website and one that helps to increase turnover I sincerely doubt you’d get much argument for the pretty looking website option.

    All that being said, there are still plenty of absolutely unusable websites out there, so it’s obviously not taken hold just yet. I’m just not sure it’s a concept that clients, designers and users need to be convinced about, but rather that it now needs to be implemented.

    My 2 cents, sorry if it seems negative. I think the ideas behind the article are spot on and also that you’re due plenty of kudos for taking the time to write it.

  • Janko (August 27, 2010)

    Hey Cam, thanks for stopping by and commenting! I agree that it’s nothing new, for some people. I’ve worked with many people that were concerned only about aesthetics. It is how they perceive a good design. They usually had a positive opinion about UCD, but nothing more than that.

    When it comes to clients, I’d say it depends. Some clients use usability and UX as buzzwords while all they think about is aesthetics. So it’s easy to sell them eye-candy as "a great user experience". I’ve seen that many times. It also depends on the environment. Here in Serbia, UCD (and UX in general) is a big unknown and it’s pretty hard for them to have a different mindset.

    Not all designers have big ego, I think we can agree on that. A few those that I know behave and think almost according to a pattern I mention in the article. Many other designers, however, were indeed collaborative.

    Even if we think of user-centric design as an obvious, I’d say we need to talk about it even more.

  • SKato (August 27, 2010)

    A very interesting article. I must admit it is an interesting viewpoint, though it does make a lot of sense. Empathy is key, seeing things from another point of view is a very big issue for designing, otherwise things can get…tricky.
    Looking forwards to future articles, keep up the thought provoking work ;)

  • Cam (August 27, 2010)

    Hi Janko,

    Thank you very much for taking my comment in the spirit it was meant in.

    It’s interesting to note how perspectives around UCD and UX are changing and to track those changes between different groups i.e. Clients, designers and users.

    I think you’re certainly right that clients often use phrases like UCD and UX, which on surface is a very positive change, but actually they are own paying lip service to the label and not committed to the underlying methodology.

    Thanks again, it’s interesting to think about these things.


  • Janko (August 27, 2010)

    Hey Cam, of course, thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  • Allen (August 28, 2010)

    This is really very good article. Thank you.

  • Tony (August 29, 2010)

    Hey Janko,

    Interesting, I just blogged about this very topic myself.

    This goes against the old movie stereotype of the computer nerd who has no concept of normal human interaction. Having empathy and, really, a love of people is now a huge edge in software development. Software is everywhere, and all types of people are using it. So it now must become human-centric.

    I said it as "your decision to build software is a decision to understand people": http://razor.preneer.com/razor/post/Your-Decision-to-Build-Software-is-a-Decision-to-Understand-People.aspx

    As we go forward in software design, egotistical coders or those who avoid human interaction will take a back seat to developers who love people and want to build things people naturally can understand and will thus enjoy.

    Welcome to the new truth. You are building software for regular people! And if they can’t use the software, it’s your fault, not theirs.

  • Theo (August 30, 2010)

    Inspiring article and a great quot: "…we are advocates for the users instead of being advocates for the clients."

  • Jim Woodhead (August 30, 2010)

    Hey Janko

    This is a great article – and something that I have just blogged about myself too, inspired by a real-life user experience.


    I think that there a number of goals and objectives that users have that they’re never actually aware of and by tapping in to those, we can make the digital experience much, much better.

    Let me know what you think of my peice.


  • Adam Holt (August 31, 2010)

    Great article and some nice points. I try to image visiting a site from a users perspective but I think it is easy to over look some of the latest advances in web design and to take it for granted that new users will understand how certain navigation systems work and fancy stuff but that is not always instantly the case. Thanks for sharing, you got me thinking on ways I could improve as a designer.

  • Iva (September 1, 2010)

    "Big unknown" is an understatement – perhaps "big ugly"…

    As for Cam’s ego comment, I am sick of "rockstars" by now, vanity profile photos etc. No wonder people get irritated.

  • GFXBD (September 2, 2010)

    A nice article containing helpful resource for graphic designer. I have enjoyed reading this article. Thanks a lot for this great post.

  • website laten maken (September 3, 2010)

    Very well written Janko! You’re right that lots of designers miss those abilities. On the other side, there’s a large group of users who also don’t see the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ design. Interesting topic :-)

  • Jon Rouston (September 9, 2010)

    Web designers like to view themselves as the ultimate designers and coders, rarely do they actually contemplate the actions of the online client.

    When speaking to web designers for my new site, I was amazed at the lack of importance placed on the navigation. to me, this is a fundamental, getting the client from the landing page onto the page that really matters such as a contact page, played no part in the design deciscion process of nearly all of the designers.

    Having contact details such as the phone number visible on all pages, never entered their heads. My advice is that whilst design is important, navitaion and achieving the goal of the website should be kept at the forefront of any design process.

  • wooden gates (September 9, 2010)

    "When speaking to web designers for my new site, I was amazed at the lack of importance placed on the navigation. to me, this is a fundamental, getting the client from the landing page onto the page that really matters such as a contact page, played no part in the design deciscion process of nearly all of the designers. "

    I was working for a web design company and my boss was like that, saying sort the content out and we’ll put the navigation around it. I couldn’t understand it at all and we usually (after testing) had to move lots of things around because people would just get lost and not be able to find things, not good and 80% of people will switch off after a few mins and leave your site.

    Great article, confirms that usability is far more inportant than style. Although when the 2 are done well you can get some stunning sites.

  • Gdh Web Design (September 20, 2010)

    A nice article, thanks janko, i completely agree with you on overcoming ego but i also think ego (if the right ego) provides a great drive and determination to achieve results! Although considering web design it is important that that ego is both design orientated and technically minded, combining both qualities, is the only way to get the best results!

  • Diseño web (September 22, 2010)

    These were JUST what I needed for a project I’m doin

  • Fabian (September 22, 2010)

    [quote]Design should solve problems rather than create them.[/quote]

    That is so true. Sadly enough most people are not willing to pay enough attention to this or even neglect it out of arrogancy. The purpose of good design is not to be good design but to guide users, to let them discover your content, to support their emotions. Then you are in the game!

  • Chris Wheeler (September 25, 2010)

    I am not sure empathy is the right word. I think engagement is a better one – subjective I know. Keep up the good work. Nice article.

  • Sarah Harris (October 1, 2010)

    While many designers may disagree with me, I believe the best designs are the ones rooted in simplicity. I’ve gone to far too many websites that seem really attractive and "cool" but are so hard to navigate that I ended up leaving very quickly. Even if your site isn’t as flashy as others, but it gets to the point in a clear way, whatever it is, that’s what you want. That’s definitely something a lot of designers need to learn.

  • maneet puri (October 12, 2010)

    Great Post. This post will now teach the designers to work on aspects other than design and look of the websites and to make it more User-centric. Good that they will now understand that users are not blind. They are smart enough to understand everything.

    All in all, I have enjoyed reading the post.

  • Andy (October 16, 2010)

    Great article, thanks for the time invested.

    My 2 cents:

    I believe it comes down to balance and objective. The client is paying the bill, so ensuring the client is satisfied is a key accomplishment (thus meeting the objective as it becomes clear). Actually, it’s the number one objective, regardless of whether or not the site meets a certain standard for clarity, ease of navigation, etc. in the community. Perhaps I have a much better idea for how the navigational flow should be designed vs. the customers opinion (based on experience or some other factor), or the over all look and feel, and let’s not forget designing with SEO in mind; unless I can communicate my input graciously, clearly and achieve buy-in, my prime objective is to meet the clients needs, period.

    This being said, a quality web designer should have a very well documented project plan that tackles structure, navigation, SEO, aesthetics, on-going site management and an effective communication plan for a balanced approach to influencing the customer and listening to the expressed needs.

    Then, make them happy. Again, this is the number one objective.

    Some sites are static and some are quite fluid with content, etc. I’ll do well to "secure" a client for on-going work.

    Just MHO,


  • Ruben Vieira (October 17, 2010)

    I’ve read pretty much all your articles but have never left you a comment. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and resources.

    As for web-design, I totally go for simplicity, I believe websites are getting way too complicated.

  • Metz (October 21, 2010)

    Thank you for another essential article. Where else could anyone get that kind of information in such a complete way of writing? I have a presentation incoming week, and I am on the lookout for such information. :)

  • Webdesign Amsterdam (October 24, 2010)

    Janko, you are so right. I have had so many problems in the past with webdesigners delivering poor quality. And most of the time thet even didn’t want to admit it. I strongly believe that some webdesigners live in their own world :)