Good usability reduces the number of times a user might say, “Ugh” (or worse, “Aaaaarrrrrrggghhh!”) as they use a site. There are many things that can fall of the rails and ruin an experience. The site’s loading really slowly? Ugh. That link is out-of-date and now it’s a missing page? Ugh. I have to sift through this long paragraph? Ugh. My order didn’t process?! Aaaaarrrrrrggghhh! A usable site prevents as many Ugh/Aaaaarrrrrrggghhh Moments as possible.
But usability isn’t just about preventing the bad stuff. It’s also about making your site more streamlined. Making the font size large enough so that users can read faster. Giving the user a useful preview of her order right before she finalizes her payment. Using HTML correctly so that an iPhone can correctly render the site in Reader Mode in Safari or so that a screen reader can read out the contents of the page properly for blind users. Streamlining an experience helps a user to accomplish more with the site, in less time.
Empathetic design requires designers to put themselves into the user’s shoes. This is central to what a user experience designer does. Without empathy, products aren’t sensitive to user needs. And when that happens, products become painful to use. In essence, user experience design is diametrically opposed to an attitude of insensitivity toward user needs. UX designers aim to create products that empower people (users) to accomplish their goals and to have a delightful time doing so.
How can a designer cater to a specific user goal if the designer is unaware that the goal exists? How can a designer find opportunities to delight a user when the designer doesn’t know what the user considers delightful? It becomes far more difficult to achieve good user experience design without access to the wealth of information that user empathy provides.
Empathy begins with curiosity. A user experience designer must be curious about what makes a user tick. The designer must genuinely care about what the user thinks and feels. Only then will the designer be able to ask great questions and uncover valuable insights that translate directly into the kind of design decisions that contribute to strong user experiences.
With billions of people on the planet, chances are slim to none that a designer thinks just like all of the potential users of a product. It’s just not humanly possible to simply know how everybody thinks. This is why user testing is not optional. User testing is the only way that you can really know if a design works for users’ brains and users’ ways of thinking. User testing is really just empathetic design made manifest. User testing is user empathy, because that’s where you can start to pick your users’ brains. During user testing, that’s where you can see a user get frustrated with something in your product that, prior to the user test, you had no idea was frustrating!