“To empathize with the user” is firmly one of the truisms of the UX world, easy to nod solemnly to. The meaning behind it seems lost, leaving behind but a shell, that leads to patronizing pity and silo mentality, the “oh, you developers/business/marketing people who know nothing of the user, only we, who empathize, know stuff”. Which, with obvious irony, leads to loss of total empathy in the organization, not gain.
It doesn’t mean you should ditch the idea, create new term for it, or something. No, empathy is the primary tool of your trade.
So, what is it. Wikipedia says “Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.”. I’d rate it “close enough/10, but no cigar”. To me, empathy is first and foremost a behavioural, not emotional or cognivite exercise. It is the capability to lose yourself and be replaced with another, to have their hopes as your own, to be constrained by their biases and fueled by their passions, and to be able to act on them. With a small exception — as a UX practitioner you need to preserve the capacity for strategic judgement, so you can utilize this newfound understanding in a productive fashion.
The people you empathize with and the products you are informing with data gained through empathy are usually thought of as the customers and the stuff you are selling. And they might be. They also might be something different. End-user and product are abstract concepts, and their meaning is operationalized through situational context. In a plain speech, you empathize with customers, but also with business people, sales, legal, developers.
How come it matters
Empathy is the primary tool of our trade, doubly so if you’re working as a researcher, because user research, at its core, is an exercise in translation, in communicating clearly needs and limitations between people. This translation is enabled by empathy and without it can occur only by accident.
Empathy should always be present at every step of generating insights from data. When designing research tools, be it interview or survey questions, be it shopping funnel for quantitative analysis, you will always empathize with your research population and research consumers. When preparing insights, you will empathize with yourself, as a maintainer of this data, in addition to people who are being informed by your work.
This is the real path to data-informed design. With true empathy, you’ll ship inclusive products that respect customers and their goals, while being sane to maintain and generating real business value.
The true cost of it all
So, empathy looks like a cure-all. If the value generated by it is so immense, how come products you use daily, and probably work on, seem so… not exactly what customers are looking for? It happens because empathy is an equivalent trade. It grants you said value, true, but it costs a lot.
The price of empathy is paid by it’s users. You can compare it to a hiltless sword — possible to wield and to do all the hacking and cutting and whatnot, but as dangerous to its user as to the enemy. The physical cost is linked with containing your emotions during difficult meetings, with remaining friendly and welcoming during user interview (as opposed to, you know, being akin to a bedroom window-peeking creep). The mental cost is even higher. Empathy by definition fits you into the frame of your target. You understand consequences of their beliefs, of their biases — imagine being an LGBTQ person empathizing with a firm religious believer, who deem the researcher’s identity to be evil. The opposite of that might also happen, when you empathize with a person deserving all the help they can get, e.g. abuse survivors. They suffered for real, but you suffer vicariously through them. When you understand your users and hit the organizational walls of not being able to deliver products that alleviate all of their worries, as you want it to happen, the feeling of responsibility can overwhelm you.
This is trauma, and unmanaged will lead to professional burnout. You need to think of yourself, to not lose yourself completely in your work. The strain is both physical and mental, so deal with it accordingly. Have a walk, or go to the gym for your flesh. Book a therapy and meditate for you mind. You’ll be fine.