Understanding Audience and Empathic Design

In the field of medicine, the doctor/patient relationship is seemingly straightforward, with a clear path for success. The physician's job is to understand their patient's condition, prescribe the best possible therapy, and evolve that therapy over time based on the results. But the starting point is the key. If the doctor doesn't take the time to understand the individual needs of their patient and instead makes assumptions regarding that need, the result will be less successful at best and catastrophic at worst (see: malpractice).

Designing a great digital product requires a similar approach. Technology is advancing daily, and our user's needs are evolving at a more rapid pace than ever before. Because of this, digital design projects require an abundance of critical thinking, as we look to solve a series of problems and answer essential questions throughout the process, to diagnose a solution properly.

So what are these essential questions? While there are many, three questions rise to the top and must be adequately answered before all others, no matter the specifics of the project at hand:

1. Who is this for?
The User - the people we're collectively trying to engage.

2. What needs to be communicated?
The Message - our mission and value proposition.

3. What's the best delivery method? 
The Experience - the journey we're taking the user on by way of design.

Keeping the user and their needs at the center of the design process may seem obvious, but it is often forgotten, resulting in a series of uninformed decisions based on personal preference. While our personal taste is an acceptable starting point, it cannot be the finish line because brands exist for their customers.

Our users are a unique collection of actual human beings, and we must do our best to understand their needs - on an ongoing basis - in order to be successful. Rather than making assumptions, an empathic design approach dictates how we effectively communicate with our audience. As strategists, designers, and technologists, it is our responsibility to understand the unique requirements of those on the other side of the screen and create for them.

Creating for others with empathy as our guide is easier said than done. It requires more effort than merely following a design or technology trend. But the work is always worth it, knowing that we are providing our audience with what they genuinely need. The result is a "virtuous cycle" seen in many of the world's great brands (see: Amazon), where the pursuit to create a seamless customer experience leads to greater success for all involved.

So how do we measure the success of a user-centric approach if we're not in the same room as our users, performing focus groups and consumer testing? In part, we now have analysis tools at our disposal to help in this process. By reviewing metrics such as bounce rates, average visit length, unique page views, heatmaps, and more, we can limit assumptions while gaining a deeper understanding of our user's behavior. This data collectively shows us the aspects of our design that are successful, as well as those areas that need to evolve. 

Examples of design elements that can have a significant impact on user behavior include:

  • High quality, properly positioned content
  • Considered typography
  • Visual cadence / whitespace
  • Intuitive navigation
  • Macro animations
  • Page transitions / snappy load times
  • ...and more

Websites and digital products are living things that must evolve to remain relevant. Thanks to these insights, we can now leverage data over time to continually refine the experience for our users, watching and learning from their interaction in real-time.

We refer to this process as adaptive designIt is an exhaustive pursuit that keeps our user's needs at the forefront, all the while ensuring more success for the brand itself.