Back in 2009, Avon decided to overhaul its entire order management system. It spent four years and $125 million designing and building a new system from scratch. The system promised to make everything more efficient and easier to use for both customers and salespeople, saving money and increasing customer satisfaction. But when Avon finally launched a pilot program in 2013, users told the company a different story.

It turned out that Avon had spent millions of dollars creating a convoluted, confusing system that no one wanted to use. As a result, Avon promptly scrapped the whole product.

So what went wrong? The answer was fairly straightforward: Avon had become so preoccupied with the product’s feature set and the idea of “new” that it forgot about the people who would be using it. Avon’s mistake was a simple one, but it’s one that many companies make: It failed to factor empathy into the design process.

The Importance of Empathy

The ideal of the Steve Jobs-ian designer is one that looms large in the UX world — being the lone wolf who knows what customers want before they know it themselves. But the truth is that there are few designers who can actually pull that off (and in reality, even Steve Jobs listened to customers now and again). Creating a user experience that can satisfy a variety of people of varying ages and backgrounds requires a deep understanding of how and why people use technology on a daily basis.

Empathy is the key to creating a UX that will actually make users happy, and a truly empathetic UX begins even before there’s a product to design.

Empathy Begins With a "Why"

Before figuring out what features their product is going to need, and before deciding on a color scheme or a target platform, it’s important for companies to understand why they’re even trying to create a new product.

That may seem like an obvious question, but companies often jump into new products without thinking things through, simply because they’re following a trend or are interested in creating something new and cool. Asking themselves why they want to create something is the first step in successful UX design, and it’s also one that’s focused on users, not designers.

Empathy is the key to creating a UX that will actually make users happy

Tinder is a great example of a company that asked itself “why” before jumping in. It wasn’t just “another dating app” — it saw what was wrong about current dating apps and went about trying to fix these issues.

Tinder’s founders knew that people didn’t want to view a grid or list of random faces. They wanted relevancy and a sense of completion. They wanted to be picky, choosy, and feel as if they were truly making progress.

Tinder focused on simplicity over features — one face at a time and only two actions: swipe right or swipe left. Tinder tapped into users’ feelings during the dating process (as well as basic human behavior) to create a juggernaut of an application, even though dozens of competitors had already beaten it to market. Tinder knew exactly why it was needed.

Before entering the design phase, UX professionals must ask themselves these questions:

  • Why does this area need a new piece of software?
  • Why would a user be looking for something different?
  • Why is this approach a better solution?

Having these answers will do more than help designers solidify the product they want to create — they’re also the first steps in designing with empathy.

Looking Beyond the Stereotype

While knowing the “why” of a product will provide direction, it won’t necessarily guarantee a successful UX. Developing an empathetic approach to design means designers must genuinely put themselves in consumers’ shoes. They need to know them inside and out — as genuine, living people, not just a stereotype of “businessman” or “teen girl.”

Make sure to define:

  1. Who the users are — age, gender, occupation, likes, and dislikes.
  2. What their reason would be to use the product and what they’re not getting from the competition.
  3. How the app will solve this problem to save users time and provide them joy.
  4. What other software or products they use on a regular basis.

Don’t just find these definitions through focus groups — engage with users naturally through social media and in the real world. Read what they say, find out the pieces of software they’re currently using, and discover what they love most by how often they share it with the world.

If UX professionals are feeling brave, they can even reach out to them and strike up a conversation about the problem they’re trying to solve. Once they get to know their demographics intimately, they can see through ambiguous statements they often see in surveys and focus groups, such as “I just want it to work better,” and discover what that really means.

Empathy means getting the full picture, not just collecting answers from a survey. This can get UX designers closer to what customers actually want and lead their design in the right direction. Their story doesn’t have to end the same way Avon’s did. A little empathy can go a long way.

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