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Developing Empathy

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I recently wrote about how to have empathy for our teammates when working to make a great site or application. I care a lot about this because being able to understand and relate to others is vital to creating teams that work well together and makes it easier for us to reach people we don’t know.

I see a lot of talk about empathy, but I find it hard to take the more theory-driven talk and boil that down into things that I can do in my day-to-day work. In my last post, I talked about how I practice empathy with my team members, but after writing that piece I got to thinking about how I, as a developer in particular, can practice empathy with the users of the things I make as well.

Since my work is a bit removed from the design and user experience layer, I don’t always have interactions and usability front of mind while coding. Sometimes I get lost in the code as I focus on making the design work across various screen sizes in a compact, modular way. I have to continually remind myself of ways I can work to make sure the application will be easy to use.

To that end, there are things I’ve started thinking about as I code and even ways I’ve gone outside the traditional developer role to ensure I understand how people are using the software and sites I help make.

Accessibility

From a pure coding standpoint, I do as much as I can to make sure the things I make are accessible to everyone. This is still a work in progress for me, as I try to learn more and more about accessibility. Keeping the A11Y Project checklist open while I work means I can keep accessibility in mind. Because all the people who want to use what I’m building should be able to.

In addition to focusing on what I can do with code to make sure I’m thinking about all users, I’ve also tried a few other things.

Support

In a job I had a few years ago, the entire team was expected to be involved with support. One of the best ways to understand how people were using our product was to read through the questions and issues they were having.

I was quite nervous at first, feeling like I didn’t have the knowledge or experience to adequately answer user emails, but I came to really enjoy it. I was lucky to be mentored by my boss on how to write those support messages better, by acknowledging and listening to the people writing in, and hopefully, helping them out when I could.

Just recently I spent a week doing support work for an application while my coworker was on vacation, reminding me yet again how much I learn from it. Since this was the first time I’d been involved with the app, I learned about the ways our users were getting tripped up, and saw pitfalls which I may never have thought about otherwise.

As I’ve done support, I’ve learned quite a bit. I’ve seen browser and operating system bugs, especially on devices that I may not test or use regularly. I’ve learned that having things like receipts on demand and easy flows for renewal is crucial to paid application models. I’ve found out about issues when English may not be the users’ native language—internationalization is huge and also hard. Whatever comes up, I’m always reminded (in a good way!), that not everyone uses an application or computer in the same ways that I do.

For developers specifically, support work also helps jolt us out of our worlds and reminds us that not everyone thinks the same way, nor should they. I’ve found that while answering questions, or having to explain how to do certain tasks, I come to realizations of ways we can make things better. It’s also an important reminder that not everyone has the technical know how I do, so helping someone learn to use Fluid to make a web app behave more like a native app, or even just showing how to dock a URL in the OS X dock can make a difference. And best of all? When you do help someone out, they’re usually so grateful for it—it’s always great to get the happy email in response.

Usability testing

Another way I’ve found to get a better sense of what users are doing with the application is to sit in on usability testing when possible. I’ve only been able to do this once, but it was eye opening. There’s nothing better than watching someone use the software you’re making, or in my case, stumble through trying to use it.

In the one instance where I was able to watch usability testing, I found it fascinating on several levels. We were testing a mobile website for an industry that has a lot of jargon. So, people were stumbling not just with the application itself, but also with the language—it wasn’t just the UI that caused problems, but the words the industry uses regularly that people didn’t understand. With limited space on a small screen, we’d shortened things up too much, and it was not working for many of the people trying to use the site.

Since I’m not doing user experience work myself, I don’t get the opportunity to watch usability testing often, but I’m grateful for the time I was able to, and I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to observe it again in the future. Like answering support emails, it puts you on the front lines with your users and helps you understand how to make things better for them.

Getting in touch with users, in whatever ways are available to you, makes a big difference in how you think about them. Rather than a faceless person typing away on a keyboard, users become people with names who want to use what you are helping to create, but they may not think exactly the same way you do, and things may not work as they expect.

Even though many of us have roles where we aren’t directly involved in designing the interfaces of the sites and apps we build, we can all learn to be more empathetic to users. This matters. It makes us better at what we do and we create better applications and sites because of it. When you care about the person at the other end, you want to write more performant, accessible code to make their lives easier. And when the entire team cares, not just the people who interact with users most on a day-to-day basis, then the application can only get better as you iterate and improve it for your users.

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