Do you really understand, or just feel like you understand?

Empathy gets all the attention in UX design, but “understanding” is what we should really be talking about. Understanding hard things is hard, and that’s why most people settle for the feeling of understanding instead.


Have you ever asked someone what a book was about, and they struggled to give you more than a couple sentences, or one of the anecdotes from the book? Odds are, they did probably read it, but they didn’t actually understand it.

As UX designers, we don’t have the luxury of that mistake. We need to know the difference between feeling like we understand (aka empathy) and actually understanding the user’s problems. 


Understanding is hard. Feeling like you understand is easy.

When you read a blog post, like this one, and you understand what I am saying, that is “surface comprehension”.

I am using words you can read.

I am saying things that make sense, even if you don’t agree.

And if I tell you a story you can imagine, then we’re good.

You feel like you understand, because you DO understand!

But you understand the words, the article, and the examples. 

You don’t actually understand the idea yet, because you haven’t spent any time thinking about it. That’s the key.

You haven’t asked any questions.

You haven’t tried to find reasons I am wrong.

You haven’t tested this idea in your work, or in meetings when other people are making this mistake.

You haven’t risked anything.

So you don’t really understand yet.


We are surrounded by things that make us feel like we understand. 

If I explain something to you, and I use words you know, and I take time to clarify the parts that are not familiar to you, you will feel like you understand.

The problem with that is: feeling like you understand kills your motivation to understand in a deeper way — and you still don’t actually understand anything.

A clever blog post with a list of points you agree with can make you feel like you understand.

An entertaining conference speaker with beautifully simple slides can make you feel like you understand.

“Empathy” for your users will make you feel like you understand.

But when you actually get back to your desk, or when someone asks you to do design something new… will you be able to use it? Will you recognize the feeling of understanding, and say “wait, I need to know more?”

Even when you could easily say you understand and everyone in the room will agree with you?


In UX, understanding the problem is your job.

If the problem was obvious, everyone would understand it. But we don’t, which is why you have a job. So when you do understand it, you should be able to explain the parts that nobody understood in the beginning.

In other words, which parts are not common sense? Which parts are counterintuitive? Which parts are hidden to the “untrained eye”? And how do they change the solution you will design?

To do that, you need to know where all of your ideas, assumptions, and decisions came from. ALL of them. What is the context? Whose work are you trusting? Do you have objective data? How many reasons do you have for thinking you are right? Are you willing to disagree with a room full of people about this? Would you bet your salary on it?

As designers, we cannot be satisfied with the feeling of understanding. Our job is to solve problems, not just empathize with them.


“Learn as if you have to teach it.”

One of the best tips about learning is to approach every new thing as if you will have to teach it to someone else when you’re done.

It’s one of those “easier said than done” things. 

When you start to research something new, book the meeting to explain it to everyone else and call it “UX Research Presentation: Prove me wrong”. 

Before you do the research.

It is AMAZING how much your approach will change. I promise. Empathy will suddenly seem like the weakest little tool in your belt, and you will cling to analytics and real users like they are a lifejacket.

Lots of people read books about smart things. But if you had to teach a class about every book you decide to read… could you do it? Would you choose the same books? Would you check the sources of the book? Would you read it more than once? Would you tell people that you read the book at all?

Not so confident that you “read the book” now, huh? :)

That’s difference between understanding, and feeling like you understand.


Do you understand? Prove it.

At this stage in this article, hopefully I have created a feeling of understanding. But you haven’t actually changed as a person. Only you can do that.

If you have never tried — and failed — to demonstrate your knowledge of something in a meeting or group, you might not actually understand this idea yet. 

If you have never failed, and then learned enough to succeed on your second try, you might not understand this idea yet.

But how do you “fail” to understand? 

To prove you understand the user’s problem — more than just empathizing with it — you must try to eliminate it.

Design a solution.

Make a prediction about what will happen if the problem is actually solved.

Try it in real life, with real users.

Measure it to see if your prediction came true.

Simple enough, right?

Well then do it. ;)



“What I cannot create, I do not understand.” — Richard Feynman