Sympathy vs. empathy in UX

Torresburriel Estudio
4 min readMar 29, 2022

As UX experts, our job is to always work towards achieving the best experiences possible for our users. To accomplish this, we must understand them perfectly. This is the reason why this field includes so many different professional profiles, all the way from technology to sociology (just as our CEO!) or psychology.

To further understand users we need to put ourselves in their shoes, but we cannot mix up sympathy and empathy. Even though they are terms that take part in the same range of emotions, they are not exactly the same, and that difference is key to UX.

Sympathy in UX

Sympathy is recognising someone else’s suffering, it is a sharing feeling. However, it is just a reaction to the other person’s situation, which translates into sadness or pityness. When you have sympathy for someone you can sense that they have a problem, but cannot imagine yourself suffering such trouble.

The word sympathy as we use it today, mainly for people’s affective lean towards others comes from the Latin sympathia, from Greek συμπάθεια (“sympátheia”) a compound of the prefix syn- (gathering, convergence) and the root πάθος (“pathos” = experience, affection, pain, suffering). It corresponds to latin’s compassio, compassionis, where the term compassion comes from.

Taking this concept to the UX’s extent, when the person in charge of research feels sympathy for the users he is acknowledging that the product’s use or the task that they are undertaking is tough.

Some examples of the expression of sympathy may be:

  • People who cannot see the infographic may have issues with the consumption of content.
  • It will be hard to navigate through this website while using a screen reader.

Empathy in UX

On the other hand, according to Dictionary.com, the definition of empathy is:

  • the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
  • the imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself.

The word empathy shares with sympathy the root “pathos” which would make reference to the emotional side of an individual, but empathy is formed by the Greek prefix “en-” which would be the Latin equivalent of “in”, which could be translated as “within”, while the word sympathy in composed by the prefix “syn-” that expresses the idea of “sharing, with”. Here lies the big difference, because what empathy implies is the ability to examine the other person’s internal world from within.

In the UX’s framework, when we practice empathy, we are not only understanding the problems our users may experience at that moment,we are also capable of understanding their hopes, fears, abilities, limitations and mental processes.

To feel empathy we have to put ourselves in their shoes and work on finding the solutions that person needs.

Imagine you are designing an accessible digital product so that people with screen readers can use it. As people in charge of design, we must be empathetic and test out our product just as a person would: without using our sight, just the screen reader. After such experience, some examples of expressions of empathy may be:

  • I am having issues with orientation while I am on this site. I should improve information architecture so we can fix this problem.
  • This is harder than expected, what can I do to improve it?

Some piece of advice to practice empathy in UX

  • Use qualitative investigation methods. To really know user motivation we can arrange in-depth interviews, focus groups or use open-ended questions.
  • Put active listening into use. This will allow us to further understand users and identify those issues we can work on to gather more information.
  • Include all your research team in diverse user research studies so they can empathize with them. If every team member understands the challenges they are facing it is easier that they develop the needed empathy to have work done.
  • Build a diverse UX Research team, so they can add different points of view.
  • Use videos of sessions with users to better display your conclusions. At the moment of disclosing results, if we bring data with real videos about how the users interact with the product, we can build an environment for empathy.
  • Build empathy maps. This is a very useful tool to help the work team to better understand users.
  • Enroll diverse users. For the creative process to be inclusive and can adapt to diversity we must start with speaking to a diverse audience. Here is a link to our instagram with a post (in Spanish) with some tips to do remote research with people with accessibility problems.

To sum up, having empathy while working in UX is really important, since it will help us in our design to improve the experience of our users.

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Torresburriel Estudio

User Experience & User Research agency focused on services and digital products. Proud member of @UXalliance