What do design thinking, user experience, customer experience and employee experience have in common? They are all focused on empathy, learning how a person's experience with a business, product, service or employer can be improved.  

Empathy is used in design thinking, UX, CX and EX to provide a better journey — that is, to improve and personalize the touch points that a person has with a business, product, service or employee. Empathy can be a potent tool in the business toolbox, and can enhance products, services and businesses.

A 2019 report from BusinessSolver showed that 82% of employees would consider quitting their job for a more empathetic employer. More than three-quarters (78%) also said they would be willing to work longer hours for a more empathetic organization. In a report from Ipsos on behalf of PepsiCo Beverages North America, results showed that nine out of 10 consumers in the United States feel it is critical that brands show empathy and take measurable action if they want continued loyalty and support. Clearly, empathy is a core business value in 2020 and should be part of the corporate social responsibilities of socially responsible — and successful — businesses.

Defining Design Thinking, UX, CX and EX

Design thinking is about understanding the needs, emotions, motivations and drivers of behaviors of customers and employees. Since design thinking is about empathy for another person’s experience, it’s applicable for both employee experience and customer experience strategies, as well as user experience programs.

According to Brian Spain, consultant for InTouch Solutions, design thinking is a way to introduce people to “thinking, concepts, or products and services through a lens that respects the perspective of the audience and works to incorporate audience feedback.” Spain starts by “gathering facts and observations and looking at a problem, or opportunity from a contextual perspective, before drilling down into details.” He then begins the process of “interviewing your audience (individuals, or small groups) to clarify assumptions and present them with very rough conceptual approaches, offerings or ways you would interact with them in order to gain their feedback in a back-and-forth way.” At that point, Spain said it’s time to refine “concepts or proposed interactions before more time is spent developing a complete finished product, service or experience.” Design thinking is an iterative process that never really ends as it leads to further refinements, adjustments and changes as additional feedback is gathered and analyzed. 

User experience (UX) design is the process in which a product or service comes together — everything from acquiring and integrating the product or service, including branding, the design itself, usability and functionality. It revolves around the experience of the end user, what their expectations are, how they will use the product or service, how it feels to them when they actually get their hands on the product or service — every aspect of their journey. 

Husam Machlovi, CEO of With Pulp, a user experience design and development studio, said UX design is “an ongoing process that aims at making better solutions for people. It starts with good listening skills.” The user’s journey is the key to the design process and “it’s important to understand what the stakeholder is trying to get done, what their frustrations are with the current method of doing things and what's working well. This is the case for any stakeholder, whether it’s an employee, customer or user.” As with design thinking, the process never ends because it can always be improved. “Once a solution is shared with stakeholders, design managers should observe and go through the listening process again," Machlovi said. "And then form a new hypothesis. And so on and so forth.”

Customer experience (CX) is the king of the buzzwords right now because we live in a customer-centric world. CX starts when a prospective customer realizes they have a need that must be filled, continues through the period where they are searching for a solution, on through the decision to use a specific business, the purchasing process and on to the phase after which they have purchased and used the product, service or solution. They will either end their journey or hopefully continuing being a loyal customer. CX strategies may include the use of a customer data platform (CDP), a voice of the customer (VoC) campaign, as well as the use of extraneous data from email, reviews, feedback and word of mouth. 

Alyssa Jarrett, director of brand and content marketing at Iterable, said her company learned that “we must strive to learn what our customers want from us — what can we provide them that they cannot get on their own at this very moment? Asking this question helps better empathize with your customers’ experiences and distill the message that serves them best.” 

Jarrett said it’s important to let customers know that the business understands and aligns with their values. “Each of our customers is set upon their own unique journey," she said. "It’s the marketer’s role to support them from touchpoint to touchpoint — as if we’re doing it together. This comes from communicating in supportive ways that demonstrate ‘we get it.’" She points to Penzey’s Spices as an example. The company infuses marketing messages with viewpoints on social and political issues, calling out political leaders or inviting customers to buy and donate spice kits to those in need.

Employee experience (EX) is the journey employees undertake during their time with a business. It begins with the pre-screening process then the hiring and onboarding process, continues through training, the daily experience at work, on through promotions, and on to their last days with the business. Happy employees equate to happy customers so businesses that focus on EX tend to do better with CX as well. Employee feedback is crucial as are voice of the employee (VoE) campaigns, both of which provide insights to improve the employee journey.

Coonoor Behal, design thinking expert, founder and CEO of Mindhatch, said businesses should think of their employees as they do their clients. “There's always a kind of primary and secondary customer," she said. "You have to serve your primary customer, like the people buying your service. You also need to design for your secondary customer, which is your employees.” Much like design thinking, EX is about learning to empathize with the drivers of the behaviors, needs and emotions of employees. Behal suggested companies “take a human-centered approach to actually understanding your employees and their needs and their wants and their challenges.”

Related Article: What Design Thinking Can Bring to Employee Experience Programs

How Does Empathy Differ From Sympathy?

Empathy involves seeing another person’s situation from that person’s perspective and sharing that person’s emotions and distress. This involves, literally imagining oneself as that person in the exact situation the person is currently going through. From a business perspective, being able to feel empathy for your customers and employees provides leaders with actionable insights that enhance products, services or solutions as well as the lives of customers and employees.

Sympathy, on the other hand, is used to convey compassion, pity, concern, care, commiseration or feelings of sorrow for someone experiencing something bad. In other words, while you might feel bad for the person, you don’t know what it is like to be in their shoes. 

Saleema Vellani, innovation strategist for World Bank Group and adjunct professor of design thinking at Johns Hopkins University, said not understanding the difference between sympathy and empathy can cause serious problems for CX and EX teams. “Sometimes when we're trying to practice empathy, we're actually mistakenly practicing sympathy," she said. "And even though these words have different meanings, a lot of teams are actually incorrectly using sympathy and empathy." Teams often make the mistake of thinking they are synonymous and "that confusion actually leads to a huge gap in addressing real human needs.”

With design thinking, UX, CX and EX, it is not enough to have sympathy. To be able to improve the customer and employee journey, a leader must be able to put themselves in the mind of each person, whether they are a customer, end-user or employee. For example, they must be able to imagine how it feels for a new employee to start a job but not be able to fulfill their new tasks because of a week-long delay between when HR hired them and IT set them up with access to the required software or tools. Or a customer who has filled out a form on a business website and completed the credit card information, only to be directed back to the shopping cart because one of the items in their cart was out of stock and they have to re-enter their information all over again. 

These are the types of intersection points or pain points in the employee and customer journey that require empathy. Each time a leader can place themselves in the shoes of a customer, user or employee, especially during one of the pain points in the journey, they can take action to improve that journey. 

Vellani teaches her clients that design thinking is about increasing the connection between leaders and the people they serve through connection. The goal “is to move to compassion. So empathy is a step up from sympathy. You're just stating, ‘hey, I feel for you’ or ‘I hear you’, which is a step up from pity, which is like, ‘I'm sorry for you.’ Sympathy is more like ‘I feel for you.’ You're acknowledging the suffering of others, but you're not actually trying to feel what the other person is feeling. Empathy is more like 'I feel with you.'"

“More than anything, it's about relationships and being able to develop authentic human connections between our business and our customers in our community,” she said.

Vellani said design thinking can’t happen without empathy and that empathy begins with self-awareness. “This is where design thinking and innovation can be very much about output and empathy is part of the process. It's somewhere between input and output because you're trying to understand your user and you're trying to know your audience. But it's not just about trying to understand your audience — it really starts with knowing who you are ... it’s about developing the capacity to have empathy.”

Related Article: Can We Create Empathy in Others?

Empathy Mapping for Better Understanding

The definition of an empathy map, as defined by the Nielsen Norman Group, a UX research group, is “a collaborative visualization used to articulate what we know about a particular type of user.” 

 “Understanding people and their motivations is key to any customer experience," said Adeline Heymann, associate VP of loyalty experience strategy at Kobie. "You need to uncover motivations and unmet needs to inform a human-centered design that grows loyalty. Empathy mapping is a key design thinking tool to that end, allowing you to visualize and understand the end-user. It can be foundational to leveraging UX, CX and EX to better serve your customers.” 

Learning Opportunities

To create a better journey for users, customers and employees, it is vital to empathize with them through each touchpoint. Heymann said “UX, CX and EX all aim to create frictionless, integrated journeys for the end-user which will ultimately build loyalty over time. They’re all based on holistic interactions and experiences with not only the company or product but also external forces like people and environment, which is particularly important as the goal is to determine which parts of the experience you can optimize to drive loyalty.”

The empathy map is broken down into four areas which are largely based on the two types of empathy — cognitive empathy and emotional empathy. Cognitive empathy is derived from acknowledging that a person is acting or feeling the way they do for reasons that are logical to them, while emotional empathy is more about feeling what a person feels for the reasons they feel that way. The four areas covered by an empathy map are: 

  • What a user says.
  • What a user thinks.
  • What a user does.
  • What a user feels.

What a user says is collected from user feedback, sales calls, interviews and usability studies. It might go something like this: “I continue to use Amazon.com because they always direct me quickly to the product I am looking for.” 

What a user thinks requires empathy with the user, customer or employee and seeks to determine what a person may be thinking when they encounter a problem, stumbling block or bottleneck. It would look something like this: “I have tried to add this item to my shopping cart three times but it is not appearing there when I check. Am I missing something?”

What a user does is easier to figure out because data that is collected during their experience shows what they have done. It might be something like this: “searches multiple times while trying to find a specific product” or “adds several items to the shopping cart, then abandons the cart before checking out.”

What a user feels is more of an emotional breakdown of their experience and also requires empathy and imagination. It may go something like this: “irritated: could not find what they were looking for” or “satisfied: they were directed immediately to the category of products they were looking for.”

An empathy map cannot be created without first knowing what the user, customer, or employee feels strongly about and identifying the user, customer or employee touchpoints or pain points. But once created, it can be a valuable tool to understanding the needs, requirements and areas that can be improved in the user, customer or employee journey. 

Related Article: Use Design Thinking to Put Yourself in Your Customers' Shoes

Knowing the Customer as a Person

Bernard May, CEO of National Positions, an internet marketing firm, said "empathy really comes down to doing the right thing for everyone involved — our customers, prospects, and our team. It is the difference between ‘what works’ and ‘what matters.’ There may be a million ways to create something that ‘works,’ but it takes far more diligence and perspective to develop and implement something that truly ‘matters’ when it comes to the brand experience.”

There is a natural order among the practices, May said, and “when it comes to the relationship between CX, EX and UX, the overall experience comes from the order in which they are considered and implemented."

Part of the EX is going to stem from the CX — one is going to contribute to the other. May said to begin with the experience a business wants the customer to have.

"If this is e-commerce, you may want a streamlined experience so customers can easily find and purchase your product. For SaaS brands, you may want customers to realize the value your service offers, so your solution can be implemented in record time," May said.

The experience you want customers to have is going to fuel the user experience you create within your processes. From there, turn to the employee experience. "Employees want to feel connected and invested in your brand message, offering, goals, and overall values, which need to be considered in the content you create — to breathe life into your user experience,” May said. 

By creating a positive experience for users and customers, employees will have a hands-down more positive experience themselves. “Your employees are going to feel the effect of the user experience you create, positive or negative," he said. "So even the longevity and sustainability of your employees are going to be a factor when building and improving the customer and user experience. They are interconnected, but at the end of the day, the CX (strategy) needs to come first so that everything else can be built to support and bring this experience to fruition.” 

The bottom line is learning how people feel about the products they use, the experiences they have with a business, and the experiences they have as employees allows leaders to gain actionable insights to improve the journeys of the human beings that interact with their businesses. Empathy can improve customer and employee loyalty, create a greater level of personal satisfaction and contribute positively to ROI.

“Business has always been and will always be based on relationships between humans," Vellani said. "And no matter how advanced we get with technology, skills like empathy are only going to increase in value.”