Empathy vs. Sympathy in UX Research

Are you conducting UX research and seeking guidance on conducting user interviews with empathy or sympathy? Keep reading to discover the best approach.

Godi Yeshaswi
April 19, 2024
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Picture this - you're developing a new mobile banking app and want to conduct user interviews. You know it needs to be easy for users, but how can you ensure it works for them? Knowing the difference between empathy and sympathy helps a lot in UX research. While both deal with understanding user feelings, they lead us differently when creating good app designs. Let's explore this in detail and see how they influence UX research.

What is Empathy?

Empathy is a complex capability enabling individuals to understand and feel the emotional states of others, resulting in compassionate behavior. 

In UX Research, empathy is key to really getting what your users need. It's more than just seeing their needs; it's about feeling what they go through when they use your product.

Think about this: You're making a new app for mobile banking. With empathy, you look beyond just the tech, like transferring money and paying bills. You think about the whole experience a user goes through.

Here's how empathy plays out in real-world mobile banking situations:

Understanding user anxieties 

Some users might be nervous about the safety of banking online. Through user interviews where you really try to understand them, you might find a user who's scared they'll forget their passcode or finds signing in too hard. This can lead you to make a sign-in process that's safe but easy to use, with clear steps and ways to get back in if you forget your password.

Identifying hidden frustrations 

A lot of users could get annoyed by a hard-to-use dashboard. Watching a user struggle to find something in the app lets you feel their annoyance and helps you make a cleaner, easier interface.

Addressing emotional needs 

For some, dealing with money is a big stress. By feeling what they feel, you might add features that help with reducing money stress, like easy-to-use budget tools or spending trackers that are clear and kind.

Empathy helps you find issues and annoyances that users might not even say out loud. By putting yourself in their place, you learn user behavior that makes a mobile banking app not just work well but also feel good and easy to use.

What is Sympathy?

In psychology, sympathy is a feeling of concern or compassion for someone else's suffering or sorrow. It's also the ability to share in and respond to the feelings or concerns of others.

Sympathy, while valuable, plays a different role in UX research. It involves acknowledging a user's struggles and feeling sorry for their difficulties. Imagine the mobile banking app scenario again. With sympathy, you recognize that a user might be having trouble navigating the app. You might feel bad for their frustration, but that doesn't necessarily translate into a deep understanding of their experience.

Here's how just sympathy can make your app design not as good:

Quick fixes 

Feeling sorry might make you pick easy fixes without really getting to the heart of the issue. For example, if a user can't log in, you might just add a "Forgot Password?" link. But if you really understood them, you'd see if the problem is a hard password or a confusing sign-in page.

Not getting the full picture 

When you feel sorry, you look at the user's problem but don't fully grasp how they feel. You might see they're upset but not get the stress they feel about keeping their money safe online.

Missing what different people need 

Feeling sorry can make you guess wrong. You might think a user finds the app hard because of its navigation, but maybe they just don't use apps much.

Feeling sympathetic is a start, but you need to go further in UX research. Being empathetic means you really understand users' views, feelings, and thoughts. This deep understanding helps make a banking app that works well, feels easy and safe, and is good for all kinds of users.

Empathy versus Sympathy

Now that we have defined Empathy and Sympathy in UX research, let’s understand the differences between being empathetic vs. sympathetic in user research - 

Empathy Vs. Sympathy

Unlike feeling sorry for someone's troubles, empathy in UX research goes deeper. It's about stepping into their world and truly getting their feelings, views, and thoughts. This deep insight is key. By really trying to see things from the user's point of view, you find hidden issues and complaints they might not even say out loud. 

This leads to making designs that not only meet basic needs but also make a positive and easy-to-use experience that also cares for the user's feelings. When doing UX research, put empathy first to go past basic fixes and create products that touch your users deeply.

Best Practices for Cultivating Empathy in UX Research

Empathy is the golden thread that merges user needs into successful UX design. But how do you actively cultivate empathy during UX research? Here are some best practices, illustrated with real-life scenarios:

User Interviews 

Set up interviews with users that dig deeper than just who they are. Ask questions that let them speak freely, listen well, and don’t push them for specific answers. Let’s say you are thinking about making a fitness app. A chat with users might show someone who can't do typical workouts because of body issues. By understanding their struggles and what they want to achieve, you could make features like workouts made just for them and exercises that feel good.

Observe In-context 

Watch how people use your product in their day-to-day lives. For instance, see how a busy person tries your new food order app during their short lunchtime. You might see them having a hard time using the app while doing work. This insight, gotten from putting yourself in their shoes, could lead to simple changes like clicking once to reorder favorite meals or using voice commands to order.

Welcome diverse views: 

Have people from all walks of life in your research. Knowing what different users need makes you more understanding. Say you’re making an app for booking trips. By including people who have trouble seeing, you might find out it’s hard for them to use your app. Being empathetic pushes you to make the app easier for them, with clear voice guides and easy-to-see colors.

Create personas with empathy: 

Don’t just makeup personas with basic information. Use what you learn to make personas that really show who the users are, what worries them, and how they think. Picture a new app for streaming music. Your research could show a user who finds it hard to find new songs but loves getting songs picked just for them. A persona made with understanding would show this user’s troubles and likes, leading to ideas like playlists for different moods or tips on new artists.

Always improving 

Keeping empathy is a never-ending task. Try out your designs with people and watch how they use them. You must be ready to make changes based on their feedback. Imagine you’ve made a new shopping site. If you see users getting lost in a complicated buying process, your empathy will drive you to make buying easier, lowering their stress and making shopping smooth.

By really getting into these habits, UX researchers can grow their understanding and turn what users need into designs that truly meet their needs. Remember, empathy builds the connection between knowing your users and making products that truly speak to them.

How Does Qatalyst Help Cultivate Empathy in UX Research?

Qatalyst is a UX research platform that empowers you to cultivate empathy for your users, not just through Insights AI but also through a user-friendly, DIY approach.

Qatalyst offers a ux research tool designed for ease of use, allowing you to conduct a variety of ux studies without needing a dedicated research team.

Moderated and Unmoderated Research Made Simple 

Conduct in-depth user interviews (moderated) or gather broader feedback through surveys, A/B testing, and more (unmoderated) – all within a user-friendly interface. No coding or research expertise is required.

Effortless Task-Based Research  

Evaluate user interactions with live apps and websites through Qatalyst's task-based research block.  This allows you to observe real-time behavior and identify usability issues (usability testing) with ease.

Global Reach at Your Fingertips 

Use Qatalyst's (integration with Dynata, Cynt, Lucid) respondent panel of 80 million people from 120 countries. Find the right people for your study, no matter where they are or who they are.

Insights AI: Making Empathy Stronger

Qatalyst makes research easy, but its real strength is in its AI-powered insights - mixing Emotion AI, Behavior AI, and Generative AI.

Emotion AI: This tool looks into how users really feel, beyond their words, by watching faces and listening to how they talk. This helps you truly understand their experience.

Behavior AI: See where users look and click. This tells you what catches their eye, what confuses them, and how they think when using your product.

Generative AI: Use gen AI to gather insights on user behavior using a research assistant, automated transcripts, and translations.


The Edge of Empathy

By mixing DIY research tools with Insights AI, Qatalyst helps you empathize with your users. You can see beyond the ordinary to truly feel their struggles, desires, and feelings. This deep understanding is key to making products that truly connect and succeed.

So, forget complicated research setups and choose a more feeling-based approach. Let Qatalyst lead you to know your users like never before.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is sympathy vs empathy in UX design?

Empathy means understanding how others feel as if we're feeling those emotions ourselves. Sympathy is when we share in someone else's feelings, often feeling sad about their tough times.

What is the role of empathy in UX design?

In UX, you focus on solving the user's issues. This means you need to set aside your own thoughts and really understand what users are saying and showing you. Having empathy in design means getting users not just what they need but also their limits and the whole situation they're in.

What is an example of empathy in design?

Let's say a UX designer is creating a mobile app for elderly users who may have difficulty reading small text. Instead of just designing the app with small text because it looks sleek, the designer shows empathy by considering the needs of elderly users. They might increase the font size, use clear and simple language, and provide options for adjusting text size within the app's settings. This demonstrates empathy because the designer understands and addresses the potential challenges and constraints faced by the users, making the app more accessible and user-friendly for them.


Supercharge your research with actionable insights faster on Decode's integrated consumer research platform with Insights AI.
Want to conduct lean and unbiased research? Try out Entropik's tech behavioral research platform today!
Want to conduct lean and unbiased research? Try out Entropik's tech behavioral research platform today!
Insights AI Report 2024
Want to conduct lean and unbiased research? Try out Entropik's tech behavioral research platform today!
Build the Right Products, the Right Way: Elevate your UX with Qatalyst's integrated user research platform with Insights AI.


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Author Bio

Godi Yeshaswi
Yeshaswi is a dedicated and enthusiastic individual with a strong affinity for tech and all things content. When he's not at work, he channels his passion into his love for football, especially for F.C. Barcelona and the GOAT, Lionel Messi. Instead of hitting the town for parties, he prefers to spend quality time cuddling with his Golden Retriever, Oreo.

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