Up Close and Personal With UX Design

What if UX designers used computers to help users feel empathy? UX professionals probably hear all the time that empathy is key to ensuring that users are engaged. The challenge is to make the creation of empathy enjoyable and potentially effective using technology.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum app is an example of empathetic user design. The app comprises photographs of survivors as they are now, a museum floor plan and exhibit summaries, electronic copies of the identification cards and stories of people caught in the Holocaust that are handed out in the museum itself, and photographs from the three-story Tower of Faces.

1 - Make a story

People think about each other in terms of a narrative; they are naturally curious about other people's stories. They want to know what happens next. The answer could be something as simple as, "She went to the store and met someone new." When you read this sentence, you imagine the experience of going to the store and meeting someone new: the ordinary sense of routine, followed by the apprehension and excitement of a novel encounter.

This principle applies even more powerfully to the poignant subject of the Holocaust. This screenshot gives a sense of how the story of a victim or survivor unfolds as the user reads or moves through the museum.

The ID card shown below is an interface in and of itself. If we define the interface as anything that allows the user to access information they would not otherwise have. For a service or experience that's not entirely electronic, consider the feasibility of handing out hard copies of objects that tell stories. People feel a certain attachment to the physical that helps immerse them in an experience. Because an ID card has so many connotations in our culture, for instance as a concrete manifestation of personal identity and a symbol of modern depersonalization, the card helps give us a "piece" of the person it represents.

holocaust app 1

2 - Make the object of empathy a subject in his or her own story

Perhaps the most important goal in creating an empathetic experience is to make the object of the user's empathy a subject in his or her own story. This is especially important in considering narratives where the intended object of empathy is a victim of disaster or cruelty. Restoring that person's status that of a subject who acts rather than an object who is acted upon is of vital importance in showing that their humanity has been taken from them. The screenshot of an electronic ID card above uses the first-person and contains incidental details about the subject's life. These are key tools for elevating personal stories from maudlin to meaningful.

3 - Use visual cues that evoke empathy

Where possible, use genuine photographs to help users to perceive faces as unique and real. If photographs are impossible to obtain, use cartoon designs that are non-caricatured representations of real people, as caricatures can risk the appearance of perpetuating stereotypes.

Keep faces prominent, as people connect with each other primarily through facial cues and expressions. Most importantly, give users the chance to make eye contact with the subjects of the story. The Tower of Faces and ID cards allow museum visitors to look Holocaust victims in the eyes, and not just hear their stories.

holocaust app visual cues

4 - Keep things at an appropriate level for the user, physically and cognitively

This has as much to do with general accessibility as it does with empathy. When users understand the story and feel they have something in common with its characters, they can relate to it. The Holocaust Museum does not explore academic debates about how the Holocaust happened. Instead, it refers to the audience's human experiences through both its app and its physical exhibits. It provokes questions about, for example, what it was like to be swayed or persecuted by Nazism. Naturally, people want to prevent something like the Holocaust from happening again, so they ask themselves how it came about in the first place.

5 - Bridge the gap between the user and the object of empathy

Paradoxically, for empathy to occur there must be a pre-existing gap to bridge between the user and the object of empathy, as well as enough common ground for empathy to be possible. Create cues that nudge the user into bridging that gap. Prompt rather than coerce. The stories on the ID cards in the Holocaust Museum are careful to include details from everyday life before the Holocaust, just as the Tower of Faces draws parallels between our daily lives and the lives of the Shtetl residents portrayed in the tower.

Compelling users to experience a particular reaction makes them feel as though they are simply being told what to feel, as opposed to being given the space to arrive at their own insights. This brings us to the last and most concrete UI rule.

6 - Open up your design

Let the user interact with the UI in a voluntary and non-linear, rather than scripted and linear, way. Feelings are spontaneous, and designing for them should reflect that. The user shouldn't have to push a procession of buttons to feel or to express a sentiment, as they do here.

holocause app open design

Intuitive gestures, common to iOS or Android apps in the field of mobile development, should be used where possible. Swiping the screen rather than tapping an arrow symbol to advance through a story is a good example of intuitive design. Subtle touches like this in interaction design signal to the user that we are anticipating their needs in terms of the tactile experience of interacting with apps about people. Encourage serendipity, too, by randomizing the outcomes of some user actions. Some unpredictability and loss of control in situations like discovering new stories may encourage the user to listen and engage rather than proceed in a rote fashion. For every new story we are novices, and so benefit from less control over the outcomes of those stories. But, conversely, we need more control over our own stories. Allow people, when telling their stories, to have control over who sees them.

Now that you know a few ways to help users feel empathy, go forth and design!


Madeline Coven UX blog

Madeline Coven is a user experience designer who wants to make websites and programs that encourage human values in users. She attended the graduate program at UNC's information science department. Before that, she studied philosophy and history at the same university, and her academic background prepared her to think about UX in terms of human values. In her spare time, she creates books for teenagers and visits museums. She also love some good chocolate cheesecake.