Daniel McKenzie

digital product design


The ability to put oneself in another’s shoes and accurately intuit their experience is one of the most overlooked skills, not only in the area of design but also business, politics, education and the many other facets of our society. Empathy and the human connection is so fundamental to understanding our audience that without it, no amount of analysis, documentation, engineering or management will save us.

And yet, business is often times strangely at odds with exploring the emotional side of things. The authors of the book, Do you matter? How great design will make people love your company couldn’t have stated it better when they said, “We’d prefer to rationalize, measure, process, and systematize. Ironically, we tend to put faith in things that are decidedly not humanistic: Science. Math. Machines. When the going gets gray, we sprint for black or white.”

Empathy may be defined as having an awareness of others’ feelings, needs and concerns. It might be said that empathy requires a certain level of emotional intelligence in order to be sensitive to how customers and users might experience a wide range of emotions at a certain place and time. In the world of business and design, the ability to acutely recognize areas of pleasure or friction could be the difference between a successful product and a bomb.

We are ‘sentient’ beings (from Latin ‘sentient’, meaning feeling). We feel first and then, try to make sense of things after. IBM salesperson, F.G. “Buck” Rogers once said, “Customers buy on emotion and then justify with logic.” We attach a feeling to everything that reaches our senses. Everything in our area of focus is constantly being judged, compared and labeled.

There are many reason for this, one of them being that emotions (however much trouble they bring us) help guide us through life. How many times have we made a decision based on “our gut”. We don’t need to stop and analyze a dark alley to know instantly that danger might be ahead. We feel it and make a decision based on what our internal message is.

Emotions provide us with a shortcut to rapid understanding, a way to quickly size-up a situation and cut through the noise. It’s no wonder we use the same cerebral function to quickly size-up whether or not a recommended web service is trustworthy, safe and not a waste of our time.

I once had a client who brought me in to help them increase their conversion rate for a sign-up process. Their was a rumor that the competition with a similar flow, had a much better conversion rate and every effort would be needed to beat them.

Before the kick-off meeting, I planted myself at a local Starbucks to study the existing user flow and hopefully, have something intelligent to say for our fist meeting. At first glance, everything about the existing UI seemed to function well. All the heuristics were in place: the steps were clearly laid out, the form elements were intuitive, there was error prevention, the pages were aesthetically pleasing without clutter… From a UI standpoint, it was complete.

After briefly panicking about how I was supposed to improve the flow, I remembered the designer’s most valuable tool — empathy. I put on my Luke Skywalker persona, let go and just felt it.

Sure, the mechanics of the user flow were in tact, but what about the emotional elements? What was going through people’s heads as they followed the process? I pretended to go through the sign-up process as if it were my first time, mindfully noting all the different emotions I encountered along the way like a Buddhist practitioner in deep meditation.

To my surprise, I was able to quickly jot down about a dozen negative reactions to the existing user flow and possible solutions. These “first impressions” were so valuable that we ended up referring to them several times during the span of the project. I was exploring the emotional territory of the experience identifying areas of mistrust, confusion, impatience, uncertainty, inauthenticity and deeper qualities that touched on the brand identity and its need to elicit desire and show human connection. The result of putting myself in the user’s shoes and grading the experience on an emotional level, was a product requirements checklist that we could then use to test our assumptions and make recommendations.

As a designer, I consider the ability to empathize my greatest tool. By focusing on the emotional quality,  the designer is able to get at the core of what makes good design. According to Dev Patnaik, author of Wired to Care, empathy is an “antidote to a world of abstraction.” Empathy allows us to boil things down and pursue what matters most to our users and customers. The question to our customers shouldn’t be “So, how did it work? It’s “How did it make you feel?”

There are many reasons why businesses may not like using emotions as a path to designing and building better products and services. After all, the reason why humans are so fickle and unpredictable in the first place is because of emotions and our inability to manage them. Emotions are messy. Management may claim that it’s all subjective anyway — “Is the glass half full, or half empty?” What good are using emotions if everybody has a different opinion?

Decisions based on how somebody feels is a tough sell. If you want to get eaten for lunch by a pool of sharks, try telling a board of directors that from now on your strategy will be based on the emotional quality of your target audience.

And yet, according to Kevin Clark, Program Director at IBM and Ron Smith, Designer and Brand Experience Strategist at IBM, understanding the emotional aspect of offering appeal and transactions to their customers “is pivotal to business success” and business strategy.

Patnaik states, “Companies prosper when they tap into a power that every one of us already had — the ability to reach outside of ourselves and connect with people.” And brand guru, Marty Neumeier adds, “While this trait may have been a handicap in the days of win-lose customer relationships, in today’s customer-centric marketplace, it’s invaluable.”

In today’s customer-centric marketplace, we also have Facebook and Twitter which means any customer satisfaction or discontent travels fast! Better to know what your customers are feeling before, rather than later.

Besides making a good case for why the emotional quality of a product or service is important, there are ways to test your customer’s responses and your own intuition. Traditional qualitative research and usability testing provides support and a methodology for taking the fuzzy math of feelings and making sense out of it.

Learning how people feel about something isn’t the same as whether they like it. Surveys often reveal likes and dislikes, but it’s ethnography studies and live usability testing that often show the thinking process that follows an experience. Ethnographic field studies might reveal how users are approaching a problem with a workaround that could be better designed and exploited. Usability testing requires the participant to think out loud, often times revealing their sincere feelings about an experience.

With an empathic design methodology, we embrace the human condition or as customer development author Steve Blank likes to say, “We get out of the building.” We learn through direct observation and test our assumptions about what customers and users are feeling. We get out, connect and interact with customers versus designing within our four walls, believing we already know everything our audience wants (that’s OK for Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive, probably not for you).

Like a sociologist or anthropologist, we back our findings with documented test results that measure consistent occurrences. Designers will develop tools such as personas to focus the team on key audience characteristics, behaviors and attitudes. New ideas based on brainstorm sessions and customer research are folded into a prototype, tested and refined.

By these methods, designing based on something abstract is less of a slippery slope and is done in a way that is acceptable within a business environment. Empathy and the emotional quality of your product or service provides meaning and value.

In summary, being emotionally receptive to your customers and product experience is fundamental to success. Experiences and brands live in the minds and hearts of individuals where they are archived in the abstract and sometimes messy form of emotions. As it turns out, great design is more than just sophisticated interaction and beautiful aesthetics.

“But to be great at design, you need to embrace the human condition and recognize that when it’s all said and done, this is what will you serve you the best.” – Brunner, Emery and Hall



  1. 1 Seth M. Baker

    This is pretty fascinating: combining something hard to quantify (emotional intelligence) with an analytical, rational approach.

    Funny to think how, on one hand you’ve got customers buying on logic, and on the other a business providing a product or service based on numbers and data.

    I do think that some businesses have been using this approach (making customers feel a certain way) for awhile. For example, any company that uses cuddly or witty animals (Coke and Geico) is appealing to customers’ emotions.

    A great example of meeting in the middle. Nice post.

  2. 2 admin

    Thanks for the comment, Seth!

  3. 3 Marco

    Hi Daniel,
    Great read! And right up the alley I have been talking about for years now. The analytical, more rational approach in terms of asking people how they feel and quantifying it, but combined with the short, personal characteristics of emotions, is something we have been working on for a long time.

    As a result we have developed several self-report instruments that use characitured cartoon characters to express emotions and simplify the recognition and evalution of emotions related to a product, website, environment, you name it.

    Have a look at our website, or specifically at the instruments: http://www.premo-online.com (for product evaluation) or http://www.lemtool.com (for websites).

    Curious to see what you think of our approach!


  4. 4 Eleanor Holmes

    This article backs up my belief that personas need to be more embraced by the marketing profession. To me, empathy is the route of understanding for successful marketing and product development. Market segments are just not enough!

    Great article to demonstrate this.

  5. 5 Barb

    Very interesting article and improving this aspect can be sooo much more cost effective- sometimes it doesn’t add anything to cost, yet can make a huge impact to the bottom line.

    I recently interviewed a terminal cancer patient at a local hospital who had been receiving care at another facility – she said she didn’t want to die there, this one had a much more “spiritual feeling.” You can’t quantify that!

    So many patient comments are centered around how they were made to feel – 8 hours in the emergency room is ok, if they “felt” like they were being treated well. A 2 hour stay in the hallway on a stretcher, not so good.

    Great article!!!! More of us should “Walk a MIle”

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