Digital services and the many online services we use are becoming increasingly important in our daily lives. As providers and developers of digital service solutions, it is essential to understand the needs and wants of users to create effective products. This is where empathy comes into play.

Digital empathy refers to the ability to understand and relate to the emotions of people online, from diverse perspectives. It enables businesses to engage with customers in a more meaningful and human way, by understanding their needs and providing tailored solutions.

Empathy 101 Refresher

Empathy enables us to understand the pain points of our users, put ourselves in their shoes, and devise solutions that simplify their lives. Although empathy is a powerful tool that can aid in creating better digital services, it is often excluded from digital strategies. It offers insight into our users' needs, which can result in more effective product design and development. By prioritizing empathy, we can create products tailored to our users' needs, increasing their likelihood of prolonged use.

Empathy in the digital space

Empathy has always been a fundamental way of relating to other humans. However, digital communication has altered our relationships with empathy. Recognizing the humanity and circumstances of another person becomes less natural when we interact with pixels instead of human faces. At the extreme end, we have all seen examples of the "online inhibition effect," whereby people say more aggressive or inappropriate things through a screen than they would in person.

Nevertheless, digital communications also provide us with access to a vast number of people from across society and the world, speaking about who they are, what they feel, and what they want. People have never been more capable of learning about the experiences of strangers.

Communicating empathy

In service delivery, the challenge is not just about feeling and acting on empathy towards many strangers. It is also about making them feel understood and cared for. People can easily become frustrated or alienated when navigating digital services that they feel are impersonal and do not address their needs. Many seek interaction with a “real person” to feel better, heard, seen, understood, and valued.

How can we add a human touch to digital services, even if they do not come with a human face? How do we develop services that anticipate, understand, and respond to the needs of their users in a way that demonstrates care and understanding?

Digital empathy improves services

Digital empathy involves not only understanding the emotions of denizens but also building relationships with them by taking into account their individual needs and preferences. This can be achieved through personalized content, customer service interactions, and other forms of communication that demonstrate an understanding of their needs.

Creating empathy in others is important. But how can you achieve this? At a recent trade show, we aimed to inspire empathy in digital leaders and developers. We set up a game at our booth with two equal sets of differently shaped parts that could be snapped together to form one shape. Two participants were selected to wear blindfolds. We then created a shape with one of the sets of parts and asked one blindfolded participant to communicate to the other how to replicate the shape. Whether in person or online, empathy is all about understanding and communication.

This experiment was fascinating to observe, as two people with no vision could communicate, share ideas, collaborate, and eventually arrive at a successful outcome. It was a true eye-opener...pardon the pun.

Digital empathy involves understanding the needs and wants of users and creating digital products or services that meet their expectations. This approach helps create more meaningful experiences for users, while also helping companies build trust with their customers and form deeper, longer-lasting relationships.

Understanding who is using the service, and why?

Designing products for all types of users, including those with disabilities, seniors, children, and people from different cultural backgrounds, should be shaped by leading with empathetic service design. It is also important to consider how digital products and services can be used in different contexts to ensure accessibility for all. By leading with empathetic service design while developing products and services, companies can create better user experiences that increase user adoption, trust, and loyalty.

For the public sector, incorporating empathy when creating citizen-facing digital services is essential. These services should provide dignity, fairness, and respect for every user.

Understanding users’ circumstances and states of mind

It's important to remember that digital services often serve as a medium through which people try to resolve some of the most important and challenging issues in their lives. The significance of user-centered design and efficient service delivery is never more crucial than when individuals face emotionally draining situations and are forced to make difficult decisions without being familiar with the terms involved.

When someone is dealing with difficult circumstances, such as a family member requiring life-saving surgery, they may be engaging with various service providers from different sectors while seeking care and support. In such situations, digital empathy is critical. Services should focus on user needs, use plain language, and keep information up-to-date. They should also demonstrate an understanding of users' vocabulary, thought processes, and emotional state of being.

It is important to understand that even the most competent and service-savvy individuals benefit from the simplest and clearest navigation during a crisis. A Scottish public service content designer shared their experience of navigating digital services when a family member needed abrupt heart surgery. The designer was emotionally drained, dealing with unfamiliar terms and organizations and making multiple difficult decisions simultaneously. This made it crucial for services to be clear, seamlessly integrated, and proactive in explaining their processes and requirements to users.

Understanding digital gaps

Another crucial aspect of digital empathy is acknowledging differences in digital proficiency and access. Many individuals use technology in a limited or different way, based on factors such as age, disability, region, social class, and more. We must address these differences not as inconvenient exceptions to an otherwise well-functioning service, but rather with the recognition that digital services have an obligation to work for all types of individuals.

Our world also has a digital divide between people with regular and reliable internet access and those without. For some Indigenous, low-income, and rural communities, limited access to internet means limited access to education, health services, and other crucial systems. As digital service providers, we often cannot fix these limitations ourselves. However, we can recognize them, listen to the experiences of people who live with them, and design services that help them make the most of their access. We should avoid designing services that compound and entrench the disadvantage.

How do we foster empathetic choices?

Some individuals possess a natural inclination toward empathy. However, for systems to make empathetic choices and provide empathetic services, established processes must prioritize empathy and translate that sentiment into practice. To effectively and consistently deliver empathy in design and delivery, it is crucial to remain in constant touch with the needs of the people on the receiving end.

Involving and observing user research and usability testing can lead to more effective and evidence-based service delivery. This approach not only gathers usable information on users and their needs but also makes user needs a prominent and ongoing part of the design process, keeping designers' attention focused on them.

It’s essential to conduct this user engagement, especially in government services, in a way that fosters trust: It is critical to communicate clearly about how the data will be used, and to maintain contact with contributors.

Empathy for staff leads to empathy for users

Empathetic choices can be built into design processes through Digital Standards Playbooks, which governments use to guide digital service delivery. Many playbooks have user-centred design as a key guiding principle and outline what this can look like in practice: e.g. using user feedback to help set the service metrics, rather than relying on management to define priorities.

That speaks to the broader connection between empathy and Digital Employee Experience: Does the ministry or company take into account the experiences of the people carrying out its work? Are they generally responsive to feedback about software, devices, networks, and workplace structures?

An empathetic system considers the humans interacting with it, whether they are employees or end-users. Rather than treating them as nodes that perform a function, it interacts with them as people who have qualitative experiences.

What are your thoughts on empathy in digital design? Do you have a plan?

Image Credit: Alfonso Estevez / Midjourney

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