Practiced Empathy Looks Cold

The ironic consequence of focusing on empathy for years, with the intention of measuring the results of being more empathetic, is that it becomes a reflex, not an effort. A routine, not a special trait. A non-issue, rather than something enlightening to discuss.


Like any skill, when you practice thinking about the user’s needs, you don’t just get better at it, you begin to take it for granted. Obviously a senior UX designers starts with the users. But ironically, to other people, that can start looking like you don’t consider the user’s needs.

And the hardest part is: if you don’t grow beyond conscious empathy (so it becomes a routine), then you will never get to the “next level” where you can start designing behavior instead of interfaces. You will be stuck in a mental place where you obey users instead of leading them.

But how do you do that?


Mastering a skill means minimizing the effort needed to do it.

Whether you play a chess, or bake cakes, or do financial models — every day, for a long time — you don’t spend your time on the basics anymore. You don’t sit down from scratch every time and ask yourself “what steps do I follow to do this?”

Instead, you have done it so many times that it becomes a part of the way you think. It might even be hard not to think like that.

When you sit down to play another game of chess, you are focused and unemotional about it. You are calculating and strategic, and you see many options in front of you. You’re not thinking about how each piece moves, you’re thinking about the whole board, and combinations of pieces, and long sequences of possible moves, and how the other player will respond.

When you decide to bake a cake, you’re imagining the final cake, and all the nuances of achieving that final result. The cake is one thing, not a bunch of ingredients. It is a system of many parts, not a bunch of individual instructions and techniques. And you might adjust certain parts of your recipe to get certain effects, even if that isn’t what a typical recipe would tell you to do. You never worry about whether you’re respecting the original recipe or all the work that it took to create the first cake… you’re improvising, like a real master does!

And when you do financial models… well, I assume it’s similar, because I don’t have the foggiest idea of what is involved in that skill. But you get the point. 

However, when you play chess or bake cakes or do financial models, nobody considers those things a “virtue”. You’re not a bad person if you can’t play chess, or bake cakes, or do financial models. And that’s what makes behavior complicated as a skill. If you don’t have empathy for the user, people think you’re a selfish idiot, or an old-fashioned manager, or the next President of the United States.

i.e. — no empathy = a bad thing.

But if “mastery” is supposed to minimize the effort required to “do” empathy, but minimizing empathy is bad… that’s a problem. It looks like we have minimized empathy.


If you’re senior: think out loud.

If you’re junior: ask more questions.

As a senior designer, you may find yourself arguing with more junior designers who believe that their suggestions are just as valid as yours, and it will be frustrating for both of you.

As a junior designer you may care about the user a lot, and have tons of empathy, but it might feel like the senior designers you work with never take any time to consider the user or do “thoughtful” things.

However, it is possible that you’re both misunderstanding each other. To add even more irony: you might lack empathy for the other designers on your team!

If you have spent years thinking about users and having empathy for their needs and experiences, you don’t have to think about it anymore. You’re not checking how many eggs you need, or reminding yourself that the Knight moves in an L-shape, and you’re not saying “hmmm… what would the user think about this?”

You’re just doing your thing.

Senior designers should take time to explain where their strategies come from, and demonstrate how empathy is leading their choices. I am often guilty of forgetting this.

Junior designers (and everyone else on the team) shouldn’t assume that they can see everything that is happening in a designer’s head. Ask about everything you don’t understand (and learn what you don’t understand!), and when the senior designer resists your ideas, ask why your idea isn’t the right choice.

Worst case scenario, senior designers will be reminded of the user’s needs, and junior designers will learn more about empathizing with the users.


So practice thinking about the users, and practice looking at the world from the user’s perspective as often as you can. But remember: the more you do something, and the better you get at it, the more invisible it is to your clients and colleagues.