LearnInclusive Design Series (2 of 4): The Limitations (and Possibilities) of Empathy

Photo credit: “Wireframe”. Baldiri. Creative Commons.

writes on September 3, 2020

Throughout user research and UX design in general, empathy is a guiding force. “Put yourself in the user’s shoes to understand their perspective,” they say. While you can empathize with a user, you have not shared the same lived experiences. It is impossible to fully understand another person’s lived experience. This isn’t to say that empathy is inherently unattainable; many user researchers are excellent at it. It’s just that empathy is sometimes done half-heartedly, and there are limitations of it even at its best.

User Researcher Sekai Farai spoke about the limitations of empathy in her talk “The Impossibility and Irrelevance of Empathy” at UXRConf Anywhere 2020 (the talk isn’t publicly available, but this panel discussion touches on it a bit). It resonated with me when she said, “Even if I do empathy really, really well, I have to fight so hard to make the small decision that is good for the user. When it gets to the really big decisions in a lot of organizations, I know not to bother.” Ultimately, the effectiveness of empathy relies on a user researcher’s power to influence decisions at an organization.

Another User Researcher who has spoken about empathy is Vivianne Castillo. In her talk “Ethics & Power: Understanding the Role of Shame in UX Research” at UXR Conference 2018, she warned of confusing empathy with pity. She gave the example of a non-profit organization building a water well for a village where the women were walking for miles to collect clean water and carrying the water in large containers on their heads. Six months later, the non-profit discovered no one was using the well. The women said, “That time when we walked to get the clean water was the only time in the day we were able to communicate with each other. And so by building the well in the village, you’ve made us prisoners to our homes.” Something like a Hippo Roller would have better fit their needs. It’s a barrel that can be filled with water and rolled on the ground via a handle. It would have taken the strain off their backs and necks while also allowing them to socialize. To truly empathize, Castillo suggests abiding by the Four Qualities of Empathy according to Dr. Teresa Wiseman:

Four Qualities of Empathy

1: Perspective-taking

If you’re in a majority identity, your environment is catered to you and therefore you’re less likely to notice it. If you’re in the minority identity, taking into consideration your surroundings is second-nature because it’s a matter of survival.

2: Staying out of judgment

Don’t judge the participant when you’re with them and when you leave the room.

3: Recognizing emotion in others

Notice the participant’s emotions, often identified in tone and body language.

4: Communicating that you understand that emotion

Let the participant know that you understand what is happening.


Castillo emphasizes that true empathy isn’t possible without vulnerability. She advises user researchers to slow down, introspect, and recognize when participants feel emotions, particularly shame. To that, she recommends saying “me too” and meeting participants where they are, emotionally. This is how you keep guards down and connect on a human level. Up next in the Inclusive Design Series, I’ll delve into how to recruit participants for user interviews as well as the ethics of user research.

Other posts in the Inclusive Design Series:

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