The Value of Empathetic Thinking in Design

4 min read time

The Value of Empathetic Thinking in Design

Every week I see dozens of landing pages, and it’s remarkable how many of them fail to provide users with the most vital and compelling elements for earning the user buy-in. Obviously, as a result, these companies waste thousands in ad dollars on users who will click or tap their browser’s back button, in what can only be assumed to be a result of some basic need still unmet.

You can read the best marketing optimization whitepapers in the world and still miss the most important elements. And this is not because they are some big secret, but rather because most agencies and product teams think in terms of technology and pixels rather than people. Pixels do not meet user needs: solutions do. The task of the product team is to achieve product goals by delivering the solution to the user via the product’s user-interface. The experience the user has will vary according to how well this has been executed.

It sounds complex and of course it is – but only to a degree; your users are simply trying to make an intelligent decision about whether or not to do business with your organization. Ultimately they are rational, intelligent people who are seeking the best (Note: this metric can vary greatly – i.e., best cloud-storage provider = space; best self-storage facility = price, location, etc.,) solution to their needs – their problem.

This is why so many smart digital product teams have come to embrace empathetic thinking in their design – something physical product teams have long done; however, it’s only been in the past few years that I’ve seen this more empathetic, user-centered approach to design enter the UX mainstream. And of course, it sounds obvious, but it’s actually something many companies fail to do; they think in terms of aesthetics rather than feelings, of logic rather than reason. Effective designers have to be empathetic to their users, and this of course requires work, because designers are not users – and all designers face the bias of their own experience with the product. It makes sense to them: they trust the company – they work there after all, why shouldn’t they!

This is why user-centered design tools such as personas and user-stories are so highly praised; unfortunately, they are rarely used and as a result, product teams who do not understand their user’s sensitivities (ex: price, time) and concerns (ex: trust, credibility, professionalism) will almost always fail to address them.

It’s also worth noting that trying to copy the leader never works. The leader is GEICO, you aren’t even Progressive. You can’t rest on the laurels of a credible, successful (i.e., ‘widely used’), trustworthy brandname. You’ve got to provide those things to your users in more overt ways.

Take this example:

quickenimgI highly doubt a non brand name offering would convert well enough to consistently bid positions 1-3 on google for mortgage keywords; HOWEVER, there are also some key things done quite well on this page. Beyond the fact that the form is above the fold and the design is unobtrusive, there are elements of trust throughout the page – something those seeking a mortgage absolutely “need”.

Understanding user-needs, however, is only part of the solution. You can understand your users perfectly and still not meet their needs if you do not deliver solutions within an intuitive, contextually valid interface. Are they on mobile? Is your form above the fold? These, and many more, are the things designers must think about; however, the problem I think most organizations fail to see is that design does not equal user-experience.

To quote Steve Jobs on the matter: “Design is how it works”.

Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works. – Steve Jobs

And in terms of the landing page, design is how well it fulfills the needs of your users.

The job of the product team is to first understand those needs and then to design an effective solution, which is one compelling enough to generate the user buy-in via conversion or sale.

Lawrence Black

If you’re responsible for your product’s customer-acquisition performance, I’d love the opportunity to speak with you. You may reach me at 866-977-2677 or