Looking Closer at Empathy

By Ryan Montgomery on 04 04 2012

Empathy in Product Development

As a software developer who loves to create products for people, I think about my audience a lot. Over time my work has lead me to a handful of truths that help me build the best product possible. One truth as I see it is that Empathy is at the root of all successful product design. I stand by this regardless of the product or industry. If you create things for people, I believe you will be more successful at it if you are capable of empathizing with your audience.

In this series, I'll discuss Sympathy versus Empathy, tactics for achieving empathy through immersion, and ways to create empathy between yourself and your clients. These empathy articles are being developed as an ongoing piece of work, so if you have questions or feel that there are missing parts get in touch with me at ryan (at) mutuallyhuman.com.

The intention of this series is to point out how product launches fail by failing to understand their customers. It postulates that true empathy is a weak point in most user research, suggests differences between sympathy and empathy, and poses methods for integrating empathy as part of product development.


If you create things for other humans, you know how important it is to understand the people for whom you are creating. There are many levels of understanding, and sometimes it may not be necessary or practical to understand everyone at their the deepest level. However, I would strongly encourage you to at least make an attempt, especially if this understanding will make or break your product's success.

There is an important distinction between sympathy and empathy. The basis of sympathy is learned knowledge. The basis of empathy is experience. Those conducting behavioral research are sometimes quick to dismiss this as a paltry difference, when, in fact, the difference can be measured in miles.

The further away you are from a situation, the less detail you see. There are seven billion people on this planet, but from 25,000 miles above the earth's surface, you can't see a single one. In this analogy, we can think of being in outer space as a complete lack of understanding, or pure ignorance. You have virtually no information about the person you are attempting to understand. If you'd never had the fortune to live on earth, and you were developing a product from outer space, you might begin by conducting some research. Maybe you would pull up your sophisticated database and start reading everything you can about life on earth. Unfortunately, research will only take you so far. For example,reading about swimming in the ocean is nothing like actually swimming in the ocean. The best you can do is extrapolate feelings from facts. The best you can do is gather your assumptions together and sympathize. You may sincerely want to make a quality product for your customers, but you just don't live in their world.


When considering our level of assumptions, we can think of sympathy and empathy as two sides of a spectrum. Empathy, by definition, is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. If you read that sentence too quickly, you'll miss it. Empathy has two parts. It is not only understanding someone, but also sharing in their feelings. Sympathy is understanding, but not sharing. In order to truly empathize with someone you must also share their feelings. One feels Empathy when one has "been there" and Sympathy when one hasn't.

For this reason, it's conventional wisdom that you are more likely to succeed at launching a product or service when you "scratch your own itch". That's because you are your own customer. You've been there. If you haven't been your own customer, then you should make a point to step back from day-to-day work and judge how you're making decisions. Are you making decisions based on Sympathy or Empathy? Which do you think is more effective? Remember, when making a decision with only Sympathy as our guide, we are forced to make assumptions. We have no inner experience to lean on. However making a decision about something when you've "been there" allows you to use few if any assumptions at all.

When there is a gap in your research or understanding, you necessarily fill it with assumptions. There's no way to avoid having a gap, but you can take measures to narrow the gap by replacing your assumptions with real experience. What's important is recognizing that this gap exists in the first place. Research or user data is not sufficient for closing the gap.

Moving Forward

Even if you haven't been your own customer, you can still attempt to achieve a level of empathy by placing yourself, physically and literally, in their experience. Empathy requires a sort of sensory experience, one which provides you with the kind of insight and nuance that you would never learn from, say, a survey. The next two articles in this series will make the case for immersion as part of user research, and suggest methods of improving communication - and generating empathy - between teams.