Developing Empathy | Designing for Foreign Cultures

By Janet M. Six

Published: September 17, 2012

Send your questions to Ask UXmatters and get answers from some of the top professionals in UX.

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our experts discuss two different topics:

  • how to become more empathetic
  • designing user experiences for foreign cultures

Ask UXmatters is a monthly column in which a panel of UX experts answers our readers’ questions about a variety of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to us at: ask.uxmatters@uxmatters.com.

The following experts have contributed answers to this edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Jordan Julien—Independent Experience Strategy Consultant
  • Itamar Medeiros—Senior User Experience Designer at Autodesk
  • Whitney Quesenbery—Principal Consultant at Whitney Interactive Design; Past-President, Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA); Fellow, Society for Technical Communications (STC); coauthor of Global UX; UXmatters columnist
  • Bas Raijmakers—Cofounder and Creative Director at STBY; reader at Design Academy Eindhoven
  • Daniel Szuc—Principal and Cofounder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd; coauthor of Global UX
  • Geke van Dijk—Cofounder and Strategy Director at STBY
  • Jo Wong—Principal and Cofounder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd

Developing Empathy

Q: What activities can we practice in order to get better at empathy?—from a UXmatters reader

“Develop an interest in what motivates others and, especially, what motivates their responses.”—Jordan Julien

Jordan has a unique perspective on empathy. “I grew up with Asperger’s Syndrome, which, in my case, led to many awkward situations. I had speech impediments and ticks and didn’t understand why people did the things they did. Simple interactions with groups were extremely stressful. Over the years, I’ve gotten help through speech therapy and psychoanalysis, but I still have trouble understanding people. When I was young, there were dozens of tricks I used to help develop my sense of empathy. The overarching strategy for me was to develop an interest in what motivates others and, especially, what motivates their responses. The most effective techniques I used to develop empathy were and still are as follows:

  • drama—When I was growing up, the most effective way for me to learn what other people might be thinking was to take on the persona of another person. Drama class gave me the opportunity to study different acting techniques. To get a good grade in drama class, students needed to develop a deep sense of empathy for a character they were taking on. If you have trouble with empathy, think about taking a drama class or doing improv or comedy. It’s great for learning to speak with another person’s voice and learning what various reactions mean.
  • music—I’ve always used music in the same way that drug-addicts use drugs—to change my mood or outlook. How music with the most esoteric meaning can cause someone to feel happier is still a mystery to me. The interesting thing about music is that a single song can hold a different meaning for everyone who listens to it. Over a period of about two years, I became very interested in listening to music with the intent of figuring out what an artist meant when he wrote a song, then researching comments about the song online to learn how others interpreted it. This gave me some key insights into human understanding and a good foundation for understanding what stimuli are most effective for eliciting desired responses.
  • talking aloud—I played a lot of different sports growing up because they tended to be less complicated from a social-interaction standpoint. There were rules, objectives, positions, and uniforms to take the awkwardness out of being part of a group. All I had to do was pay attention to what was going on around me and help achieve the team’s goals. I was good at sports, which may be why my teammates tended to tolerate my presence outside the games themselves. When not engaged in sports, I tended to lose myself in random thoughts about other things. I’d frequently revisit confusing social situations internally and play out different variations of them in my mind. At such times, it appeared that I was talking to myself. I’ve since learned to think in this manner without talking aloud or looking like I’m a crazy person. This technique has helped me to expect the unexpected, and I’ve realized that, for empathy to be really effective, you need to approach every situation expecting to learn something new.
  • curiosity and asking questions—As I said earlier, my overarching strategy was to develop a legitimate interest in what motivates others. Over time, starting when I was still in high school, I developed a curiosity that has stayed with me. Even in high school, I still struggled with certain social situations, but I had found something that motivated me to understand more about people. My first calculus class was in grade 9, and it introduced me to the field of probability. I believed probability could shed light on what was normal. If it were possible to determine the most likely reactions to a stimulus, it would be possible to determine which reactions are most common—and hence, which are normal. This idea gave rise to social experimentation in which I essentially conducted mini-ethnographic studies to gather real data on how my cohorts reacted to different social stimuli. The biggest insight that I got from doing this was that people are notoriously bad at putting motivating emotions into words. In fact, it became apparent that I needed to test my theories in actual situations rather than merely deriving insights from data. Learn to ask why people do the things they do. You’ll find that the same things motivate most people. But keep your mind open to learning new things. Although there are probable reactions, there are also anomalies. Understanding the anomalies is what I find interesting now.”

Spending Time with Users

Empathy is the ability to understand and identify with another person’s context, emotions, goals, and motivations.”—Whitney Quesenbery

Empathy is the ability to understand and identify with another person’s context, emotions, goals, and motivations,” replies Whitney. “It’s the heart and soul of user experience design. In Whitney Hess’s great blog post ‘You’re not a user experience designer if…,’ she said, ‘You’re not a user experience designer if you don’t talk to users … and can’t identify with your target audience.’

“Spending more time with users leads to better understanding of and identification with them and, thus, empathy. The two go together. Almost every UX person I know has had an experience with a team or client where they finally get it when they watch a usability test or go out into the field to do research and spend time with users, because this allows them to see things from the users’ perspectives. It’s hard to watch someone struggle and not want to solve the problem or to see how a design throws up barriers and not want to break them down.

“Let’s take the simple example of watching a usability test or design research session. You can watch without compassion—ticking off boxes, mentally criticizing participants for not being technically savvy, or whatever. Or you can open yourself up to the experience and think about how things look through their eyes. Then, when you are brainstorming or reviewing ideas, try putting yourself in their shoes. Try it a few times, and you may find empathy creeping up on you.”

Whitney recommends that you check out her UIE Webinar “Give Your Users a Seat at the Table: The Characteristics of Effective Personas,” saying “It looks at different activities that let you and your team use personas throughout the design process.”

Part of empathy assumes that you are taking the time to better understand people more deeply….”—Daniel Szuc, Jo Wong, Bas Raijmakers, and Geke van Dijk

Dan, Jo, Bas, and Geke put together this response to our reader’s question: “Part of empathy assumes that you are taking the time to better understand people more deeply—where they live; their communities, families, and friends; and the lives they live. Having empathy means that you are constantly aware of tweaking your approach or communication style to get the best information from the people that you meet. To get better at empathy, perhaps you can engage in exercises that enable you to

  • be open minded—You must avoid judging people and contexts too early and remain open to opportunities that may not be immediately obvious to you and the people you meet.
  • reduce your bias—We all have specific views about the world. By being aware of them and knowing when to put them aside, you can get better at going into new situations with fresh perspectives.
  • collaborate with research participants—You should give participants an equal role in the research that you do, giving them a voice and helping them share and open up their lives to you.
  • accept what you see and hear—You should never dismiss what situations and participants reveal to you. You shouldn’t judge, but rather accept the truth of what you see and what that truth may mean.”

Whitney recommends the following resources, in which UX professionals share their viewpoints on the topic of empathy:

  • Jim Hudson of PayPal—In his UPA 2010 presentation with Mercedes Sanchez and Jose Gil, ‘Conducting International Research,’ Jim made the point that, if you do research in the US, UK, and Australia, for example, while you may have traveled the globe, there are strong similarities among these countries.”
  • Jean-luc Doumont—In his UPA 2005 invited talk ‘Bridging Cultures: Segmentation, Strategies, and Statistics,’ Jean-luc suggested that, to increase our cultural knowledge, we should get out and meet more people and that, as designers, we should focus more on similarities than on differences. His point was that, unless we are designing different products for different countries, cultures, or other groups, we need to find ways to communicate to everyone. So understanding what makes us the same is as valuable as ferreting out differences.”
  • David DeSteno—His NY Times article ‘Compassion Made Easy discusses how empathy is significantly easier when you find something in common with the other person. This article echoes what Jean-luc Doumont said in his presentation on cross-cultural communication.”

Designing User Experiences for Foreign Cultures

Q: In what ways can a design team better understand a foreign culture? What skills are important in doing cross-cultural research?—from a UXmatters reader

“Three activities enabled the design team to become immersed in the culture…”

“I’ve seen global marketers approach this problem in different ways,” answers Jordan. “I encountered the most effective of these when a major global retailer was expanding into China and opening a series of retail locations, as well as an ecommerce site. Three activities enabled the design team to become immersed in the culture, as follows:

  1. cultural briefing—The Business Intelligence group had spent three months collecting data and case studies that provided an introduction to the new culture. This briefing lasted one day.
  2. cultural workshop—The marketer arranged for real users to come in for a day-long workshop, during which we were able to get real-time feedback on our sketches and designs.
  3. testing—We did three rounds of remote testing—a survey, usability testing on prototypes, and validation testing on our designs—in addition to doing ongoing multivariate testing.
“If you are the one coming to a different culture, you have to adapt to it—or at least be able to navigate through it.”—Itamar Medeiros

“Obviously, the depth of each of these activities would vary based on how much a client is willing to invest in a market, but there is definitely value in approaching designing for foreign cultures from this angle.”

Itamar Medeiros is a designer from Brazil, who working in Shanghai. He told us, “One thing I’ve had to do is to become more tolerant of things that used to upset me when I first got here. What in Brazil would usually be acknowledged as good manners and common sense doesn’t always apply here. If you are the one coming to a different culture, you have to adapt to it—or at least be able to navigate through it. Young designers seem to take for granted that self-reflection is part of the job. And it’s important to keep a learning attitude.”

For more on the topic of multicultural design, read my recent Ask UXmatters column “Thinking Globally.”

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