The Importance of the Empathize Phase in UX design

User experience and Interaction Design have become increasingly popular fields in the last decade. Companies are becoming more UX mature every day and strive to deploy design thinking methodologies and other popular frameworks in their everyday work life. Despite that, we as designers still face obstacles while communicating with stakeholders during the product design process.

One of the most significant factors is that people involved with the project sometimes underestimate the value of allocating time and resources to the most crucial phase of the design process — empathizing. Most of them believe that they already know the right solution and that there is no need to research and understand their users’ needs.

So, we will discuss why the empathize phase matters in the UX design and point out the primary reasons it might be beneficial for the overall results to be viable.

What is Empathize Phase about?

The brilliance of design thinking is that it places the user at the center of all project processes and ensures that they’re tailored around the user’s needs. This essential process begins with the empathizing step (There are five stages in the design thinking process: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test).

Empathize is the most common approach to understanding your user’s needs and pain points and ensuring that you’re solving the right problem.

We need to do something very simple for this phase: put ourselves in users’ shoes to understand what they think and how they feel. To do that, this process usually involves a lot of UX research processes, such as conducting surveys, interviews, and observation sessions that may take too much time. That’s usually why this phase is sometimes underestimated or skipped altogether.

The process may take up to 6-7 weeks (depending on the project), which creates the most barriers. In most cases, stakeholders and decision-makers do not want to allocate “so much time” to understand their users. It’s like shooting in the dark since you’re guiding the entire product design process blindfolded, which ultimately results in a lot of time and money being burnt on a product that’s ultimately irrelevant to your customers. And no one wants that.  So here is why it is so important not to take the Emphasize phase for granted.

Why Is It Vital?

Let’s imagine we are building a social aid platform for people with low income. Let’s suppose we decided to skip the empathize phase and started to build the platform for the web with fancy and beautiful graphics and animations. There is a high chance that the product might not succeed, and the effort and resources might be just wasted. Wonder why? Let’s dive into more details.

If we conduct the research in the empathize phase in design thinking, it might show that most low-income users do not have a personal computer or laptop and only own mobile phones. That means that due to a usually lower RAM on mobile phones, our users wouldn’t even be able to see those graphics and complex animations properly. On the contrary, they would require a simple website working on low-quality devices with no lags and, most importantly – an excellent responsive design.

Now, Let’s take a real-life example of Premier smokeless cigarettes.

  • Company: RJ Reynolds
  • Year introduced: 1988
  • Product: Cigarette

R.J. Reynolds, the second-largest tobacco firm in the United States, began selling smokeless tobacco in 1988 as a safer alternative to smoking a cigarette. However, on top of doubts about the product’s actual safety, users missed the familiar characteristics of traditional cigarettes, such as the smoke, the burn, and the flick. Another concern was the commonly mentioned terrible chemical taste, which one user compared to “burning plastic.”

Reynolds had invested over $1 billion in the product before pulling it off the market within a year.

This product didn’t work out because the company did not conduct any proper research to determine what smokers loved about cigarettes and smoking. Those insights would have been highly beneficial for the company in making their innovative idea viable and effective. It could also save the frustration of many users who could have provided positive feedback. Not to mention the potentially avoidable waste of $1 billion. 

However, the company either disregarded/or did not fully complete the Emphasize phase, and the product ultimately failed. 

The role of customer feedback, user research, and analysis is crucial even for making incremental changes to the project. You can’t change the users’ behavior unless you fully understand their reasoning behind it, so conduct the proper UX research and observe your users’ behavior. Otherwise, there is a huge chance your product ends up the way it ended in the previous example.

Why You Shouldn’t Skip the Empathize Phase?

Here’s why:

  1. It allows businesses to discover erroneous objectives early on and iterate again.
  2. It saves the company time, finances, and human resources.
  3. Each role and person is different within the cross-functional team. So, it’s helpful to have a solid understanding of a big idea before you start designing. A shared goal will keep your team on the same page and kick the process forward.  
  4. And most importantly, it helps us get to know our customers and create something that can actually improve their lives.

What To Do If You Can’t Afford Emphasize Phase

Suppose you’re still stuck with time restraints and can’t go to the entire length of an in-depth emphasize phase. In that case, there are always some habits that you can incorporate into your team’s workflow to provide ongoing feedback from the user instead of dedicating a separate chunk of time to the emphasize phase. The critical point is to keep communicating with our users and build continuous product discovery habits. In other words, we have to permanently test the product with our customers and conduct some interviews. 

Iconic people in the industry, such as Teressa Torres and Laure Klein, share different methods for building products. Here are some of the essential techniques for getting the continuous feedback from users:

  1. Four on Friday (or three on Thursday, or two on Tuesday) – The main objective is to establish a regular cycle of usability testing and build a system that shares feedback with the team in a semi-automated manner. The idea is to set up a system in which you frequently recruit a few users or potential customers to conduct a usability test regularly.
  2. Shared Customer Reports– Automate all inbound customer input to appear in specific common channels, which the whole product team observes. This strategy will regularly make all critical feedback available to key members of the product team, allowing them to address relevant issues more often.
  3. Rotating Customer Board – In this case, the company keeps some diverse people on the customer advisory board to keep sharp minds in different directions. Occasionally, they have some interviews or meetings to get some advice or feedback.
  4. Beta Testing groups – Sometimes, our employees are our users and represent instrumental voices to get feedback from. So various companies use their employees as testers in some cases. They aren’t a group of folks whose job is to make sure everything works as designed. Instead, this group of internal people has agreed to determine if what you designed actually works for them.

The Bottom Line

In a word, keep in mind that the research and empathizing phase is never worth skipping. There are far too many UX research methods for conducting research that is inexpensive and simple. So, if we want to create relevant, usable, and viable products, we have to keep listening to our customers and understanding their needs.

Meet the authors

We are a 200+ people agency and provide product design, software development, and creative growth marketing services to companies ranging from fresh startups to established enterprises. Our work has earned us 100+ international awards, partnerships with Laravel, Vue, Meta, and Google, and the title of Georgia’s agency of the year in 2019 and 2021. 

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