Empathy Transfer: How to Improve User Experience by Effectively Communicating User Needs Through Storytelling


July 9, 2020



So I’m having a conversation with some designers, and, of course, the topic of empathy comes up. I don’t recall the exact context used, but it was something along the lines of, “Okay, hotshot, you talk a lot about empathy, but how do you communicate that to stakeholders?” I replied, “If I absolutely need to have the user’s voice heard for something specific, I do just that. I’ll play an audio clip of an interview or a video clip from a usability test. What better way to communicate how your users feel than to let them do the talking?” Satisfied with my answer, we moved on to other very important topics like craft beer and probably how the latest UX design system tools will change everythinggggah!

I later found that I couldn’t stop thinking about that question. Day in and day out, it would surface back to the front of my thoughts, and I was no longer happy with my answer when it came to user research methods. I’m good at communicating empathy; I do it all the time… I am the empathy whisperer, damn it! (Or so I tell myself). As someone who has spent years as a user researcher, why did I feel that I didn’t properly communicate how to communicate empathy? The reason I’ve discovered is that I cherry-picked a small part of the answer. So here I am to redeem myself. The real answer that I stand behind is improving user experience through storytelling.

Storytelling isn’t a new concept, but it is definitely the right answer. As a user researcher, I have the opportunity to get to know the people that will ultimately use the product or service I’m working on. I get to speak one-on-one, enter their homes and workplaces, and truly get a feel for their behaviors in the proper context. In quantitative research, I learn what their pain points are, I uncover what they’re really trying to accomplish, and why they do what they do when they do it… go ahead and reread that line, it was fun to type out.

After speaking with people, carefully analyzing our conversations and their behaviors, and then taking the time to synthesize it all, I come out as the champion of their needs. I have an intimate understanding of those users, and my empathy battery is full to the max. It is my responsibility to transfer that empathy to the team and stakeholders. But how do I transfer feelings without introducing bias or losing something? The answer: storytelling.

So, what is the best way to communicate our user’s journey? Here comes the list of best practices for improving user experience and communicating empathy through user research!

Be Concise

While it’s important to be thorough in your user research, get rid of all the fluff that often comes with presenting. As a consultant, I find that most stakeholders are busy and have very limited time. My teammates also have limited time, so respect it by telling a memorable and engaging story with an unrushed quickness. What I mean is, no high-level bulleted lists or long-drawn-out presentations. Think of it as sharing an anecdote with rich, actionable insights peppered throughout. Most importantly, know your user. If you have the luxury of adding more details or deliverables, recognize that and prepare accordingly.

Tell Your User’s Story, Not the Businesses, or That of the Software or Services

Your user is the protagonist of the story, the hero, if you will, so treat them as such and give a proper background. If you did your UX research properly, you know what your hero’s day looks like before and long after they interact with a product. Introduce me to your user! Did they lose sleep all night because they needed to know what all the hype was about Joe Exotic and binge-watched Tiger King? Does your user sit in traffic for 45 minutes straight every morning? Is your user the first one to work in the morning because they wake up two hours early so they can ride their motorcycle the long way to work and arrive super invigorated?

Each one of those descriptions painted a picture of how our users start their day, their potential mindset, and any hurdles or obstacles they may have to overcome before even starting their workday. Why is this important? First off, we’re starting to build an understanding of who these people are, what makes them tick. They are becoming relatable and not just some human who uses a system. In addition to context, it’s important to try and understand the emotional state a person is in before they’re about to interact with your product.

Let Me Feel Their Pain

Don’t just tell me that “users struggle when attempting to locate the payments button.” Make me feel the time that went into getting there, the disappointment after having spent what felt like forever, including dealing with interruptions from colleagues, only to hit a dead end. Let me feel the frustration of having to rage quit and start all over and use another service—a competitor’s service! Let me agree with their decision because I’m feeling frustrated, too. The result is that I’m now empathizing with the user.

Let Me Feel Their Joy

We’ve suffered with the user—let’s also celebrate their wins together! Were they gleefully amused at how little effort it took to add a new user to their system? Did it just magically populate all the necessary data, saving our hero potentially hours of work? Are they incredibly ecstatic that they can actually take lunch away from their desks for the first time that week? Did they “@here” everyone in their Slack General channel to tell everyone how amazing the new onboarding software is? I want to be excited, too! Make me feel it!

Understand the Hero’s Goals and Motivations

Let’s face it, at the end of the day, stakeholders are primarily interested in creating business value. By empathizing with users, we’re able to understand what users do and why. If we understand their goals and motivations, we have the basis for providing them with the tools or services that they need… oh yeah, that sounds a lot to me like value proposition!

The bottom line is that, by the end of the story, everyone sitting with you “around the campfire” has been enveloped with empathy for their users. At this point, you can pair up problems with solutions. These pairings are actionable insights that stakeholders or teammates might otherwise have disregarded had they not put themselves in their user’s shoes.

Authored By

Jamie Acker, UXC, Senior Design Consultant

Jamie Acker, UXC

Senior Design Consultant

Meet our Experts

Jamie Acker, UXC, Senior Design Consultant

Jamie Acker, UXC

Senior Design Consultant

Jamie is a user experience designer and researcher with a background in industrial design and human factors. He's passionate about problem solving and the human-centered approach that leads him to the right solution.

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