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Designing with Empathy in Mind: Lessons from the VCFA Site Redesign

In the design field, we often hear the word “empathy” thrown around a lot, but what does it actually mean with regards to our project goals? By definition, “empathy” is the ability to be aware of and sensitive to the feelings, thoughts, and emotions of another. The ability to be empathetic is an innate quality we all possess. And when it’s employed in an office or team project, it can greatly improve the harmony of a group dynamic. However, while the essential need for empathy might seem like a no brainer, putting it into practice with design work is often easier said than done.

As a designer, the solutions we create cannot be self-serving, but instead must meet the challenges and goals of the client and end-user (e.g., the person or group of people who use the final product). Empathy holds us accountable throughout the design process. It forces us to evaluate and measure the effectiveness of the solutions we’re creating.

When Constructive teamed up with the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) to redesign their website, the relationship had a comfortable fit from the start. We’re a team of brand strategists and designers, so working with a higher ed art institution felt like a match made in heaven. After all, most of us were once art and design students ourselves! But as we soon learned, shared experience doesn’t give us cart blanche to make assumptions about their users.

While empathy is something I’d like to think comes naturally to me, sometimes we all need reminders and wake up calls. When we’re working with clients in industries less familiar to us—like education, law, or policy organizations—it’s easy to be empathetic. We need to test our assumptions because we know we’re not the experts in these issue areas. Working with VCFA gave me the opportunity to stretch my “empathetic muscles” and challenge my own art and design school biases and assumptions.

Along the way, our team (re)learned valuable insights about designing with empathy that Constructive has woven into our design process.

Tips & Tactics for Designing with Empathy

1. Leave Your Ego at the Door

You might come into the room with a lot of knowledge and experience, but when you’re starting a design project it’s important to enter the conversation with an open mind. While we were working with VCFA, this was something I had to be acutely aware of because the start of a project is often the most exciting time for me. However, during this stage, it can be easy to get carried away with the magnitude of knowledge you want to contribute. Having received my BFA in Communications Design and Photography, I had a lot of my own thoughts about the “ideal” user experience and design system for VCFA. Yet while I could relate to the needs of the site based on my own experiences, I still needed to empathize with VCFA’s needs by asking the right questions and taking a backseat in conversation. By allowing the client to navigate the conversation with their expertise, needs, and desires, our team was able to begin developing UX and visual directions that started to fit what VCFA was hoping to accomplish.

2. Adopt Humility

During our early ideation and prototyping phases, our design team found itself spinning our wheels with a design direction that simply put wasn’t working. Sometimes it’s good to push the envelope, but in the midst of the prototyping phase, we were beginning to go down paths that weren’t on-brand for the client. We created systems that were more in line with how we defined “art school” or proposing unique ideas just to be “different.” In theory, these abstract design directions sounded strong, but in moving past the mood board and ideation phase these design systems began to fall apart. It took a heavy dose of humility to admit we needed to rethink where we were headed. This vulnerability ultimately instilled greater trust between VCFA and our team.

As cliche as this sounds, achieving great design is a process. It’s a lot of trial and error, and accepting that sometimes you’re going to be wrong or reach a dead end. When moments like this happen in the design process, it’s important not to get discouraged or be too steadfast in your initial approach. While unconventional to popular belief, my experience as a designer and working with VCFA has taught me failure is not always bad. It’s what you take away from those lessons and create in the future that matters more. After all, it’s better to fall forward than to stay stuck where you are.

3. Avoid Presupposition

While trial and error is inevitable, learning ways to avoid making assumptions creates an easier design process. In a 1990 study conducted by Elizabeth Newton at Stanford University, the phrase “curse of knowledge” was coined to explain the phenomena that happens when individuals unwittingly assume that other individuals can piece together and understand their logic and way of thinking. For example, a designer might assume their client knows how to use a program like InVision, which is a platform we use to review and annotate wireframes. Since the designer uses this program every day, it can be easy to overlook some basic functions that could be confusing to an unfamiliar client. Continuing with this example, if the designer never fully communicates the difference between a static (non-clickable) page layout and one that is interactive, the client might begin to formulate their own understanding of how interactions will function on their new site. As you can imagine, this could lead to major miscommunications and headaches down the road.

To avoid this, it’s important to test assumptions through user testing or prototyping. In other words, as you create design elements or aspects of the website, you should test your assumptions and interview your client (and/or end-users) to make sure every design decision is meeting their needs. Taking this approach allows us to keep healthy checks and balances on our ideas in relation to the overall health of the project. After all, when all the information is on the table there’s no more room for assumption because everyone understands the end goals and together can work on meeting them.

4. Actively Listen & Observe

When things weren’t working with our original designs for VCFA, we took a step back to revisit our notes from past conversations with their team. Sometimes going down the wrong path in a design project is the result of not listening well. But sometimes, as in this case, it’s because we’re following through on the wrong observations.

Moving past our assumptions, we realized that in many ways VCFA’s existing brand and design system were a solid foundation for us to build from. And before you ask “wait, why didn’t you start with that?!” We did. But at first glance, the brand was not modern and not communicating the vibrancy of their school’s experience. When we took a closer look at the intent behind their current brand, we found elements of a design system that could be emphasized in their new identity. It was hard to tell on their existing site, but VCFA had started to turn these elements into a design system of colored transparencies, overlapping images, and elements that broke out from a grid layout. It took time to realize we didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. But once we did, we had a much stronger foundation from which to build a brand that ultimately helped VCFA reach their larger goal: to effectively reach out and communicate with prospective and current students.

When empathy enters our design process it becomes easier to actively listen and observe because understanding the client’s needs becomes our sole focus. VCFA came to us seeking a design refresh that provided a better reflection of their growing student and faculty needs, as well as a more effective way to promote their programs and navigate their site. In addition to managing the client’s expectations, our final benchmark of success was our measurement of how well we understood the end-users’ needs. In an empathy-driven process, when the client is working to serve the end-users, the end-users become the “other client” in the room. By actively listening and observing what both parties have to say, we can create solutions that more effectively meet everyone’s needs.

5. Genuinely Care

At the end of the day, our team was committed to creating the best product for VCFA, and VCFA was committed to collaborating with us to get there. When you genuinely care about solving your client’s challenges, you’re able to invest more time and energy in getting through the inevitable highs and lows of a project. It’s important to remain patient with the process because genuine and vested interest might not happen right away. It takes time to build trust and create a mutual understanding between a creative team and a client. In order for this to happen successfully, a designer should spend time to get acquainted with the client’s work, who they are, their missions, values, etc. When a project is approached from this angle, you’ll naturally find impactful solutions are the ones that keep empathy in mind.

Designers, It’s Your Turn to Put Empathy into Practice

Practicing authentic empathy and then utilizing it in your workflow takes time. Luckily, there are a lot of great resources and tips out there on how to cultivate empathy on your teams, in your projects, and in your workflow.

There’s no perfect algorithm—with enough practice, you’re bound to find the strategies that work best for you.

About the Author

Leah Garlock

Leah Garlock

Leah believes design problem-solving is as much about actively listening, as it is about aesthetics. The knowledge she acquires from clients enables her to design integrated brand identities and digital experiences for social change agents. At Constructive, Leah assists the senior design team with internal and client facing work, and collaborates closely with UX designers and web developers. She earned her BFA in Communications Design and Photography from Syracuse University where she received a grant to explore the cultural identity of Korean American adoptees. Most recently, Leah collaborated with the Center of Urban Pedagogy and Hollaback!, as a Public Access Design Fellow, to create a bystander awareness guide for public and street harassment. In her free time, she enjoys reading good books, crafting random playlists on Spotify, people watching at coffee shops, and hiking the trails of the Adirondacks.

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