You say empathic, I say empathetic: What it means in UX to have empathy as a skill

The other week, I was reading about experience mapping when I came across the following sentence:

The experience map helped create a shared empathic understanding of the customers’ interactions ...

The emphasis is mine, because when I read the word “empathic” my face scrunched up as if to say, “That’s not right.” Surely the author meant empathetic. I couldn’t recall ever encountering “empathic” before, and it seemed like a pretentious choice. Certainly it had more punch, but why use an uncommon word when a perfectly common one would do?

Turns out, I was wrong about empathic, and the word carries way more depth and history than I assumed. In UX today, it's well understood that empathy is important to user-centered design, but I also sense the word is overused to the point of banality. I wondered what the difference was between “empathic” and “empathetic" (if there was one), and I began to consider what UXers mean in the first place when we talk about empathy as a skill.

So first, a little etymology:

To my great shock, the word empathy itself only entered the English lexicon a century ago. Its first recorded usage by the Oxford English Dictionary appears in 1904, translated from a German word (einfühlung) that itself was only coined in the late 1800s. Apparently, the word originally had to do with a person’s ability to “feel into” the emotions of a piece of art or literature.

Empathetic, meanwhile, doesn’t appear in print until 1932 when a writer uses it in an April edition of The Nation as a juxtaposition to sympathetic [1]. But by then, empathic had already been in use for 20 years. That’s right — empathic is the older word. It first appeared in 1909, in a published lecture on experimental psychology, and apparently ever since then it’s held particular meaning and popularity in scientific research. In everyday language, though, the two words are often used interchangeably, and clearly empathetic has won out. As I type this, under every instance of "empathic" I'm getting a red squiggly line.

But wait, there’s more! Empathic is also associated with science fiction and fantasy, where characters with supernatural psychic powers are sometimes called “empaths.” Because of this, to quote the website Grammarist: “empathic has developed the latter-day sense very in tune with the thoughts and feelings of others, which it does not share with empathetic.” (Original emphasis, not mine.) The term “empath” also appears in the vocabulary of psychics, self-help gurus, holistic healers and the like, and I gather “empathic” might owe some of its unpopularity to a fear that it implies pseudoscience or sci-fi.

OK, OK. So what?

Empathy gets a lot of buzz in UX. There are empathy maps, explorations of empathy, defenses of empathy, and lists of ways to become a more “empathic” designer. But being empathetic — or empathic, with more on that in a second — isn’t like being skilled with Adobe CS6. It's a soft skill. Everybody agrees we need to be empathetic, but where does that empathy come from in practice? What does it explicitly mean when designers say they have empathy?

This is where I think the nuances of empathic and empathetic are useful. In everyday language, we associate empathy with feeling or mirroring somebody else’s emotions, but in psychology that’s just one of empathy’s dimensions. Emotional empathy also includes empathic concern, a much broader concept which itself can include sympathy, compassion, and altruism. There’s also a cognitive side to empathy. Empathic accuracy refers to the ability to infer the thoughts or feelings of someone else — not in a psychic way, but in the sense of everyday mind-reading (e.g. those moments when I just know what my fiancée is thinking … or I think I do).

"Empathetic" doesn't carry these meanings. "Empathic" is synonymous, and at the same time it's a richer word that offers a much wider window onto empathy as a phenomenon. It also has academic weight and, for better or worse, that hint of sci-fi. Now, I’m not ready to suggest ditching empathetic altogether. Empathic is more versatile, but by invoking it you're also more likely to be misunderstood. My point here is not to be a prescriptivist. For me, being aware of this extra depth helps clarify what it can mean to be a UX professional with empathy:

1.  In the most familiar sense, being empathic means sharing and understanding the emotions of your users. Some folks might be more naturally adept at this, but no one arrives at a given project in a perfect mind meld with the people you're designing for. So where does it come from?

First of all, we build empathy through testingresearch, and discovery, each of which aids our ability to approximate somebody else’s perspective and see the world as they do. Maybe that's obvious, but I've seen multiple articles on empathy that urge designers "Read fiction!" or "Be mindful!" without a single one that says "Strive to become better at discovery and revel in work that connects you to your users."

Secondly, it's also about being a user yourself and drawing on those experiences. We’ve all had moments when a usability or design problem frustrated our ability to get something done. Not only do those moments need to stick with us, but we constantly need to be exploring and engaging with websites, apps, systems, devices, products, etc., in search of experiences our users encounter as well.

2.  Being empathic means being compassionate. Even if you don’t share a user’s emotions or entirely understand them, you need to care. Again, testing, research, and discovery are fundamental here. In practice, I also think this type of empathy is demonstrated by being an unceasing advocate for user-centered design. The compassion is in the doing. It manifests itself in your decision-making, in fighting for your users' interests. It means seeing with one eye, and feeling with the other.

3.  Being empathic means anticipating a user’s needs, thoughts, and feelings. At some point in the process, every designer needs to do a little everyday mind-reading. It’s not magic, though. Know your craft, know your users, and get outside of your own head.

So, empathic or empathetic? To me, what’s important isn’t so much which word we choose but what we mean by it. Having empathy is a multidimensional skill that designers can hone and demonstrate in several ways. And when I say empathy is a skill of mine as a UXer, I now know exactly what I mean.

(I also know if I come across a designer who claims to be an empath, I am totally working with that person, as I imagine the psionic ability to sense and control the emotions of others would be handy in A/B testing.)


[1] Interestingly, the origins of "sympathy" trace back more than 250 years before empathy, to the mid-1600s.