Empathy is the soul of design

There’s been a lot of attention to Jack Dorsey’s recent realisation that ‘users’ is a terrible term and that Square (but not Twitter it seems) should change the way it describes the people who use its products and services.

Great. I mean it. This is great.

‘Users’ is a terrible term. Designers and developers employ the word ‘users’ when they’re thinking of the idiots they have to pre-empt, work around, and otherwise fix things for. ‘Users’ is a hostile label, spat out by people who don’t shave below their jawline. I’m happy to see it go.

Replacing it with ‘customers’ is a step in the right direction, and I have to applaud Dorsey for taking that step. But it still doesn’t go far enough for designers. See, ‘customer’ is still primarily a commerce-based designation. Think of people as customers (it is better than consumers) and you’re thinking of their wallet first, and everything else a distant second.

I like to think of people as ‘people‘. Individuals with emotions, desires, dreams, needs, tastes, and probably pets. Don’t misunderstand me – I understand the will to shorthand. ‘Customers’ is a lot shorter than ‘people who use our products’, however it’s not as easy to empathise with.

This is important, because I can empathise with a person. Hell, I’m a person. Some of my best friends are people. I can put myself in the mindset of a person and build an experience that resonates for them. A customer, however? Well, nobody I know is a ‘customer’.

I realise that these might seem like distinctions without differences, but I can assure you they’re not. I also realise that using ‘people who ride bikes’ is more clumsy than ‘cyclists‘. But I guarantee you’ll be a better designer if you think of people as people, rather than customers. Or anything else.


  1. Thanks for writing this, Ross. It brings me back to a recurring thought I’ve had for years re: music, writing, advertising, design, film — essentially any created artefact of culture.

    Did you ever wonder how people can get away with making rip-off versions of expensive perfumes and colognes? It turns out that scents can’t be patented in the same way as other chemicals because they are deemed to be an incomplete formula. Perfumes smell different from wearer to wearer because the chemical reaction isn’t finished until the scent hits the wearer’s skin.

    In much the same way, is a design ever complete until the users/customers/people who use our products interact with what we’ve produced? Do we need to go one step further and think of them as active collaborators?

  2. During an interminable attempt at finding someone more talented to work with, I found myself briefly partnered with a skilled designer that had a shitty attitude. He basically thought all his clients were morons that should give him all their money for his brilliant designs. He also didn’t understand that a good logo/collateral was the beginning of the marketing campaign. I had my doubts after he ragged on a client for not accepting the logo he had made “as is” and I finally hit the silk after he brought in a “Philly Girls Gone Wild” site that needed to be revamped.

    This guy was the definition of someone who saw the audience as passive, staring in awe at his ART.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *