Empathy in UX design and development

A new theme is emerging in the UX (user experience) world: Empathy. Putting humanity into technology. Product designers want to ensure they have empathy with the users of their product. We in the tech world want to design for what people need and want, rather than for what’s new and shiny. I think technical writers can contribute to this discussion!

Last month I attended Web Directions South 2014, a conference for people who “design, imagine, create or build digital products, web sites and applications”. A strong theme emerged at the conference: Empathy, what it means to be human in a digital world, creating an internet for humans… What’s more, this was a spontaneous emergence, not suggested by the conference organisers. It just happened.

My deduction was that this must be a “thing” in the world of web design and development at the moment, whether conscious or unconscious, whether generally known or just beginning to seep into our collective consciousness.

I’m wondering: how many other people have encountered this theme?

Since then, I’ve read a post by Georgina Laidlaw, entitled “Why Don’t You Have a Writer in Your UX Team?” (linked at the end of this post). Georgina was recently at the UX Australia Redux conference in Melbourne, where she noticed a “dearth of writers”. She follows that observation with an excellent and exciting description of the contributions a technical writer can make to a UX team: “five things a great writer knows better than anyone else in the room”. I’ll resist simply listing the five bullet points, because such a bald list wouldn’t do justice to Georgina’s post.

Georgina’s third point struck a chord: “Writers understand empathy“. She says,

Writers deal with emotion all the time. Even the writer of the blender manual is working to avoid frustrating or patronizing you, and to make things seem achievable so that you feel an affinity for the product you’ve bought.

Every professionally written item aims to communicate, and to do that, the writer needs to deal with emotion. They’re skilled at empathising with the target audience — the users of their words — whether that’s on a single-word basis, or a thousand-word basis.

I’d add these points: As technical writers, we focus on analysing our audience, thinking about how our customers work, what they want, and what they need. We get to see early version of the product we’re documenting, whether that be an app, an API, a piece of hardware, or another type of product. We exercise the product as a user would, in order to document its usage. Many of us interact with customers, via feedback on the docs, in forums, or in other ways. We see a different set of customers from those the product managers and marketing/sales teams focus on: we see and think about the “end users” (for want of a better term).

We can chat to the engineers, designers and product managers we work with, to share our insights. We can make ourselves known early in the design phase of a product, again to share our insights and also to expand our own knowledge of the product aims.

So, yes to Georgina and other UX specialists: let’s talk. 🙂

Here’s a link to Georgina Laidlaw’s post on SitePoint: Why Don’t You Have a Writer in Your UX Team? It’s well worth a read.

These links point to my notes on the four key-note presentations at Web Directions South: InterconnectedAn Internet for Humans too, Being Human in a Digital World, A Voice for Everyone.

A pic from me, for fun:

Empathy in UX design and development

About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 20 November 2014, in technical writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Excellent concept. I’ve often felt that the people preparing customer content are naturally suited to user experience design. Empathy is at the root of both activities, and there is every reason for information to flow in all directions among the production team rather than just outward. I’m fortunate to currently be working with a company that exemplifies that principle.

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