Imaginative Empathy in Writing and UX

I was talking with my husband recently about something that's important when you're writing. He's taking a few classes, and he's not confident as a writer. I explained that one of the most important things you can do is understand your audience. I spend a lot of time talking about the audience with my students as well, and while talking with Gerald about written argument, it occurred to me that much of what I was saying applied to UX.

Even (and perhaps especially) if your audience doesn't agree with your argument, you've got to think through what your reader needs to feel heard. If you're opposed to abortion, for instance, and you're writing to a group of folks who will be pro-choice, you will be more successful as a writer (speaker, etc.) if you think through the kinds of arguments and language that will appeal most to your audience.

If I'm opposed to abortion and speaking to a group of folks who are pro-choice, I might address the safety of women, respect for women's sexuality, and describe how both points of view value the integrity of life - we just emphasize the value of the life of the fetus vs. the value of the life of the grown woman. On the other hand, if I'm pro-choice and speaking to a pro-life audience, I should consider that point of view and speak to issues like the sanctity of life, religious or moral imperatives, and other concerns that will appeal to that audience. It's an exercise in empathy that opens all kinds of doors and windows that would normally be closed.

It's deeply satisfying to let someone have it who embraces a position that you dislike, but it's less successful in the long run than empathy, compassion, listening, and all the rest that makes good writing palatable to readers from both sides.

Sometimes, I've wondered if this approach to writing isn't a little evil. You present yourself as compassionate and concerned about the opposition's needs in order to weasel a way into their hearts and minds, planting little seeds of your argument along the way. These seeds are likely to take root in the fertile soil of empathetic listening and pandering to the readers' interests, getting you a step or two closer to converting a member of the opposing view point to your side.

This kind of empathy is different from the empathy you feel for your child or for your spouse. It's different from the empathy you feel for a puppy dog at the pound in a commercial soliciting donations to the humane society. There's a motive in your empathy, in that you have something you want from the person you're empathizing with. And it sometimes requires greater imaginative leaps. It requires that you understand people who you might not ever see. It requires you to read minds a bit, and to imagine needs, values, skill sets, and emotions for folks who are quite different from you. It's fun, and it's not easy for everyone. It's imaginative empathy.

The connection to UX is that we position ourselves as stand-ins for users. In developing personas and imagining scenarios to predict how someone will interact with a UI, we use the same skills of imaginative empathy. We do the same kinds of research to understand people who might be quite different from ourselves and who might have different skill sets with technology, different needs, and different values from our own. We craft experiences that will satisfy users' needs, and, when we do our best work, we delight them along the way.

We do this because we care about users, yes, and also because it builds the credibility of the brands we represent. Good UX and smart content strategy keeps users coming back. It makes sense, and it makes money.

So I'm not sure what I've done here, but the connection made a lot of sense to me, as I've been exploring how I arrived at this place in my career. Empathy with the reader and empathy with the user is something that has always come naturally to me as a writer, and I suspect it's why there's a lot of overlap between these disciplines. As I grow in my own career, imaginative empathy is something I can look for in partners and colleagues.


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