Illustration by Gleren Meneghin

No job is one-dimensional, and that especially goes for creative disciplines. When I first started speaking in my career, I learned quickly that getting up on stage and presenting content was only a small part of my responsibilities. You must first create the content; second, you must deliver that content in an engaging and informative way; and third, you must engage with the attendees post talk to get their oh-so-valuable feedback. That third part is especially important as it’s a crucial step in redefining, refining and perfecting the product you deliver. Unfortunately, at the beginning of my speaking career, I was solely focused on getting through the talks with very little thought of anyone but me and my needs.

As a person who stutters, the thrill and terror of just getting on stage and physically saying the words I’d planned was enough of a success for me. But after I got used to doing the literal job of speaking – and not hating myself the 12 hours before and after I gave a talk – I learned that I needed to shape my content not around what I wanted to say, but around the points my audience needed to hear from me. 

In other words, I had to put less emphasis on what I felt I did best and more on what the client needed from me in order to succeed. I needed to practice what I preach and start truly embodying empathy. 

Sharon Steed speaking on stage at the beyond tellerand Berlin conference in 2019.
Through her speaking engagements around the world, Sharon learned to focus on empathizing with her audience (credit: Amaze Labs).

Empathy and design

This concept is extremely similar to the process that designers must go through in their career. When you visit a brick-and-mortar store, hotel, someone’s home, or a website, what do you take notice of immediately? The colors, the flow, the lines, the layout, the use of space: all of those are major factors in the design of the establishment. And they all greatly impact the customer’s opinion of the space and their experience with your company.

Design is the first element of a website or brand that viewers consume, and therefore it’s the most significant aspect of the customer’s first impression of the company. And it’s more than just colors, lines, textures, and use of space. Design takes customers on an adventure; in order for that journey to truly empower a customer to act in the way you desire, you must approach design with empathy. 

Empathy – the ability to understand or share the feelings of another – gives designers the perspective they need to create beautiful and functional experiences for their customers. And the cornerstone of empathy is listening. 

Listening as a designer

Listening has several definitions, but the one most pertinent to designers is “to hear something with thoughtful attention; give consideration.” Notice what that definition does not include: your opinion. Because we are human, we rarely hear what people are actually saying when they speak to us. Their words enter our ears and go through several layers that include our own ideas, life experiences, and how we are generally feeling at that moment. In short, we don’t hear what people say; we hear our opinion of what other people say.

Therefore, listening is more than just hearing sounds or words; it’s an action that is based in patience and thoughtfulness. It takes an enormous amount of persistence and strength to move those filters out of the way, and most of us – on any given day – simply do not have enough in the tank to move them. 

As challenging as listening is, there are a few ways to make it a more streamlined process. First, you must have patience. Try to remove any distractions from your field of view: put your phone facedown, mute your notifications on your computer; ignore everyone and everything else around you and focus entirely on the person in front of you. When you feel yourself beginning to wander, remind yourself of the why of the interaction. When you keep the end goal in mind, it is much more beneficial to you to pay attention. 

Next, garner some perspective. You don’t know everything, so remind yourself that you do not have 100 percent context on the person you are talking to or the situation you are involved in. Hearing them out, therefore, will jump in importance and it’ll be necessary to resolving the issue at hand. 

Gaining perspective is also key to minimizing the biases that come along with being human. Empathy-centered design isn’t possible without first checking those biases and understanding where they originated in the first place. And this brings us back to listening: how do you listen as a designer? It’s a three-pronged approach. Each of the following questions will help you better understand the filters separating you from the customer and, as a result, how they can better take in your design. 

Who is your customer?

Customer personas extend beyond just how to get people to buy your product. They are the cornerstone of the why: why people buy your product the first time, why you have repeat customers, and why they champion your brand. As a designer, you must remind yourself that the customer doesn’t always look like you, your parents, or your friends. 

How does your customer consume content?

Let’s take this beyond “computer, tablet or smartphone” and consider this: Where do people look first? Where do they linger? What will hold their attention the longest? What colors are most palatable and which are too abrasive? How can we use imagery and the visual layout of the written content to best appeal to that customer? Every person has a very nuanced set of needs; your design is there to fill a gap just as much as the product you are selling. 

What visual elements appeal to your customers?

As a designer, your responsibility is to speak to and move the customer through your design – often literally. What direction are your physical and metaphorical lines moving your customer in? How are the shapes in your design impacting their experience? Is the largest typography truly encouraging your customers to read more? Are you allowing enough room for the customer to breathe through the spacing on the page? 

Design is an inherently empathetic task

If design is a conversation, you as the designer are in the drivers’ seat. You set the foundation for your customer – the listener – to best hear your company’s thoughts, feelings, and desires through design. Of course, everyone will take something a little different from the designs you create, but the key point is this: Effective design can’t happen without empathy – without even just a basic understanding of who you are designing for and what they need from you. And this all starts with listening.