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Method designing: donning the user's shoes

Amy Marquez on empathising with users to create better experiences

Aristotle said that the secret to moving the passions in others is to be moved oneself ...”
– The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute

When you think of 'method acting' you may think of Marlon Brando, Daniel Day Lewis or Christian Bale. Method actors use focused, in-depth character research and affective sense memory to recall emotions similar to that of the fictional characters they are portraying on stage or film. They do this to bring a greater sense of reality to the roles they are playing.

Sometimes this goes a bit too far, resulting in an unhealthy fixation on “being” the character instead of acting the character. Whatever your opinion on the method, it has yielded some amazing performances. The actors using this method develop a deep sense of empathy for the characters they are portraying.

It’s all about empathy

In his blog, Montgomery Manifesto, creative producer Mick Montgomery gives this advice to all creative professionals:

"I encourage each artist, not just actor, to try and find their own opportunities for empathy in how they interact with the people in their own lives, and with fellow artists. It really is the key towards finding your own aesthetic and your own voice as a creative person."

And user experience coach, Whitney Hess, has an entire category on her blog dedicated to empathy. She believes so strongly in empathy as a tool that she says, “I believe empathy builds empires.”

It’s important to understand that empathy is not sympathy. Empathy is the ability to understand exactly what someone else is feeling or going through because you have felt it or experienced it yourself. Sympathy is recognising feelings of sadness or distress in others and providing comfort to them.

As one blog about interpersonal skills put it, “Empathy is always good. Sympathy is contextually good.”

Applying the method to design

There are great benefits from using empathy as a tool. I’ve always called this removing your 'designer hat' and put on your 'user hat'. And when I looked back on my theatrical education, I realised that what I was saying is that to truly empathise with the users, you had to employ a form of method designing.

Method actors do an abundance of research to make an attempt at understanding the motivations and emotional states of the character. And as user experience professionals, we should be doing similar research. Usability experts don’t conduct research simply for their own benefit – user research is something every designer should be observing.

In order to understand the intended audience, you need to observe them. What expression is on their face while exploring your design? Are they engaged in the study and interested in what’s going forward during the session, or are they disengaged, nervous or restless?

Don’t just listen to what the participants are saying, look at their posture, their hands, their brow. Use your eyes to tell you what the user is feeling.

Employing empathy

Empathy is particularly important when your designs are intended to be consumed across multiple platforms. Think of the context in which the participant is using your design. Are they on a mobile device? Use empathy as a tool and put yourself in their shoes – play the role of the consumer or member to generate ideas for solutions.

Think about your experiences using mobile sites. Where are you when you have your device in hand? What is your main concern or impediment to completing tasks on a mobile device? Visualise an instance in which you were unable to complete a transaction on your device and remember how that made you feel. I’m sure you can come up with several immediate examples.

Recalling the times you were frustrated by a mobile site experience can inform your decisions in creating designs for that platform. If you want to take it a step further, seek out a website or app similar to the one you’re creating. Take a walk or go shopping and try to use the interface. Be aware of what works and what impedes progress in the task you’re trying to complete.

Know your audience

Analyzing a character’s psychological wants, needs and objectives is at the core of every version of method acting taught. Applying this to experience design may be easier in some cases than others.

Designing for membership organisations where there is a well-defined segment of the population as your target audience can make research more focused. Or if the design is for a very specific consumer population, like people who regularly shop on Etsy, that can also narrow the scope of your research.

Before you jump into 'method designing', know the backstory. Knowing who your audience is may seem like such basic information – it’s usually one of the first questions we ask when starting a design effort. But digging deeper past the demographics and even past the personas, will improve your understanding of this audience. You can’t put yourself in a persona’s shoes. You can try, but without direct observation and understanding of the people you’re designing for, attempts at empathy will fall short.

Find your opportunities to empathise with the people using the experiences you create. It’s the heart of user-centred design and the path to understanding the people you are designing for.

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