Empathy in user focused design

April 5, 2018 by 1 Comment | Category Content Design, Scottish Approach to Service Design

Last month, a member of my family was rushed to hospital and needed heart surgery. (Thankfully, they’re doing well now.)

I had to make sure that, once they were home, they had the care and support they needed. So I found myself on the receiving end of the kind of content I produce.

In the space of 48 hours, I googled, emailed and spoke to service providers from:

  • voluntary sector organisations
  • private sector organisations
  • the NHS
  • central government
  • local government

As a content designer, I know that creating and running effective digital services means focusing on what users need to do.

My recent personal experiences show why this is so important.

Before I share them, I’d like to be clear that I couldn’t, and am not trying to, speak on behalf of all users.

Everyone will think, feel and behave differently in their particular situation. These are just my descriptions of, and reflections on, engaging with services during what was a fraught time.

How I felt

I saw, first-hand, how user-centred content and effective service design makes life easier when you’re a user.

Clarity and simplicity help you get on with the job at hand. Especially when you’re:

  • emotionally drained
  • making several difficult decisions at the same time
  • faced with unfamiliar terms
  • contacting organisations you’ve never been in touch with before
  • completing interconnected tasks involving different-sized organisations, from different sectors

Understanding users’ vocabulary, mental models and the impact what they’re going through is having on them, has always been crucial.

It’s even more so now the Scottish Government has responsibility for 11 benefits.

Concentrating on users’ context, state of mind, ways of seeing the world and the Digital First Service Standard, will mean we create a social security system based on dignity, fairness and respect.

My needs as a user

As a civil servant, I’m used to dealing with a range of organisational types and structures. But I was surprised by how, in this context, it felt overwhelming, and mentally and physically exhausting.

It was an eye-opener in terms of how stress and worry got in the way of my ability to take in details, and process information as quickly as I usually would. (They also shrunk my capacity to remember things.)

I had tunnel vision. I wasn’t particularly interested in who provided what service, or which department had responsibility for what.

I just wanted everything to join up seamlessly, so I could finish my lengthy to-do list as quickly as possible, and with the minimum amount of fuss or delay.

What made things easier

The services that were easiest to use:

  • had taken the time to assess what information users need, and at what point
  • were easy to navigate
  • were upfront about what I had to have to hand before I began
  • organised the flow of information so it was well paced and made sense
  • had forms that were easy to fill in (with examples) and didn’t repeatedly ask for the same information
  • were clear about what they were asking for and why
  • were clear about where and how to get more advice and guidance
  • answered the questions I had in the back of my mind
  • where relevant, explained why the whole process couldn’t be done online

They used Plain English too. That was a godsend.

Even though English is my first language, and I don’t often struggle with long, complicated words, the last thing I wanted to do was to have to hack my way out of a forest of jargon.

Because every unnecessary or needlessly lengthy word was yet another thing to decipher.

It augmented the already substantial amount of intelligence I had to contend with, and was an impediment to me being able to bring my undertaking to a conclusion expeditiously. (See what I mean?)


My experiences have backed up what I’ve learnt in my role:

  • services can’t be effective unless they focus on user needs
  • it doesn’t matter what your reading age might be, plain English makes accessing services easier for everyone
  • looking at what’s working and what could be improved, and keeping information up to date, is a must

Although I didn’t come across the life events model on my online travels, it made me realise how valuable it can be when your journeys cut across several services and websites.

It means some of the thinking about what you might have to consider has already been done for you.

In term of my job, the main thing I took away was how important it is to be involved in, and observe, user research, and usability testing. So what you produce is based on evidence instead of hunches and assumptions.

It’s something I’m going to do regularly from now on.

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  • Julie Kane says:

    Dawn thank you for sharing your personal experience. I think it will resonate with a lot of people.

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