Thoughts on Indi Young’s A Practical Type of Empathy

(From a talk Indi gave in 2015 and posted on her site, link here.)

Researchers consider there to be 8 types of empathy, mostly deeply rooted in emotions and not useful in UX since you can’t make those moments happen, they’re spontaneous and not repeatable. As Indi says, it’s bunnies and rainbows and not business

The one we can access in our UX process is cognitive empathy

  • We can make it repeat
  • We can use it to create more ideas
  • But it happens over time

Chris Allen Thomas defines it like this:

  • Cognitive empathy is the largely conscious drive to recognize accurately and understand another’s emotional state. Sometimes we call this kind of empathy “perspective taking.”
  • Cognitive empathy activates areas in the prefrontal cortex involved in language and processing of semantic content—or meaning more strongly than emotional empathy does.[8] Finally, cognitive empathy is a more conscious, deliberate, and abstract process involving higher levels of abstraction, but is no less important.

I see this playing out in user research sessions across time

  • While one-on-one listening is key, you’re not necessarily going to learn anything from a specific, individual session (in terms of cognitive empathy!)
  • You’re going to learn in multiple sessions over time as part of the ideate-test-iterate loop
  • Even as the design evolves, careful listening reveals deeper patterns, causations, motivations that aren’t apparent on the surface
  • This is why it’s important to test multiple times—there are learnings to be had over time that might not come out in just one set of research sessions
  • Over time, you can better pinpoint experience gaps and pain points as you abstract the experience across multiple testers
  • In this way, we aren’t only testing what we’re building—we’re also testing the efficacy and appropriateness of our solution
  • As we continually test, we widen the opportunity to gain wider perspectives and create new ideas to bring into testing
  • This also suggests that we should test with a wide variety of user types, including with folks with different levels of ability

FYI—This post recapped some of Indi’s talk, brought in another expert’s thoughts and then ended with my general musings based on what I’ve read. Go to Indi’s site to read all her thoughts on the topic

About Indi (from her site): I have written two books, which are loved by thousands of practitioners and referenced by many curriculums. I have presented at 40+ conferences globally. In 2001 I was a founder of the UX agency Adaptive Path. I got my start as a software engineer, with a Computer Science B.S. from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1987.

In my early projects, I realized that there was a gap between what my team knew, as engineers and creators, and what people were trying to ultimately accomplish. My career has been dedicated to closing this gap.

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