Practical Empathy

For Collaboration and Creativity in Your Work

By Indi Young

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  • Practical Empathy Cover
  • Conventional product development focuses on the solution. Empathy is a mindset that focuses on people, helping you to understand their thinking patterns and perspectives. Practical Empathy will show you how to gather and compare these patterns to make better decisions, improve your strategy, and collaborate successfully.

    Your product design should be informed by a deep understanding of user goals. In Practical Empathy, Indi outlines a way of working that goes beyond data-driven research methods to deliver genuine empathy for the people who use the things we make.

    Karen McGrane, author of Content Strategy for Mobile

    Illustrations View all on Flickr

    • PE000a: Front Cover
    • PE001: Figure I.1a
    • PE002: Figure I.1b
    • PE003: Chapter 1
    • PE004: Figure 1.1
    • PE005: Figure 1.2
    • PE006: Figure 1.3
    • PE007: Figure 1.4

    Practical Empathy Blog View all Blog posts

    Table of Contents

    • Chapter 1: Business Is Out of Balance
    • Chapter 2: Empathy Brings Balance
    • Chapter 3: Put Empathy to Work
    • Chapter 4: A New Way to Listen
    • Chapter 5: Make Sense of What You Heard
    • Chapter 6: Apply Empathy to What You Create
    • Chapter 7: Apply Empathy with People at Work
    • Chapter 8: Apply Empathy Within Your Organization
    • Chapter 9: Where Do You Go from Here?


    These common questions and their short answers are taken from Indi Young’s book Practical Empathy: For Collaboration and Creativity in Your Work . You can find longer answers to each in your copy of the book, either printed or digital version.

    1. How are you using the word “empathy?”
      This book is not about the kind of empathy where you feel the same emotions as another person. It’s about understanding how another person thinks—what’s going on inside her head and heart. And most importantly, it’s about acknowledging her reasoning and emotions as valid, even if they differ from your own understanding. This acknowledgment has all sorts of practical applications, especially in your work. This book explores using empathy in your work, both in the way you make things and the way you interact with people.
      Chapter 2 introduces the nuances among different types of empathy.
    2. Can anyone learn how to be empathetic?
      Curiosity about people is key to the empathetic mindset. A core inquisitiveness about other people’s thinking and experiences is necessary. This curiosity can be something that starts small and grows over time. People who have received constant positive feedback for speaking about themselves might have a hard time learning to be curious about other people. In addition, people who are used to solving other people’s problems (like a doctor) will have a difficult time turning off their deductive thought process in order to absorb more detail through listening.
      These criteria are discussed in Chapter 2.
    3. How should I train to increase my empathy skills?
      Practice listening to people every chance you get. Practice shutting down your inner voice so that you can hear more clearly and recognize when you need to ask more to really understand something. Practice recognizing your own emotional reactions, so you can dissipate them before they distract you too much from listening to others.
      In Chapter 4, there are some practice exercises to try out.
    4. What do I look for in a candidate when I need to hire an empathetic person?
      Look for core curiosity about other people. Look for the intent to support others better. These are discussed in Chapter 2. Additionally, look for the ability to listen, silence the inner voice, and dissipate reactions, as explained in Chapter 4.
    5. How can I train my team to be more empathetic?
      Teach your team how to listen deeply and show them how to practice by doing it yourself or with them, over lunch or during meetings. Additionally, the experience of working through the stories and creating summaries is a powerful way to improve listening skills.
      Summaries are explained in Chapter 5.
    6. How do I clearly convey insights I’ve gained via empathy to my peers and decision makers, even across departments?
      Repeat the clearest stories you’ve heard. When you open your mouth, other people’s voices will come out. An important part of your job is to “pollinate.” Get these perspectives out among the people of your organization who need them.
      Suggestions how to do this appear in Chapter 6.
    7. How does empathy improve my interaction design skills?
      Empathy doesn’t directly help you lay out the steps of how a person uses your solution. Empathy is knowledge that lines the inside of your skull, awaiting the random creative inspiration. When the inspiration happens, your collected knowledge serves as a foundation to support, hone, or disprove the idea. Empathy helps your team decide on the overall direction and flow of what you are making so that it supports the intents of a specific set of people.
      Chapter 6 shows how this works, and Chapter 8 addresses it in the context of your organization.


    Chapter 1 (PDF)

    Chapter 4: Published in A List Apart (February 17, 2015)

    Chapter 8: Published in UX Magazine (February 18, 2015)


    As an entrepreneur and product designer, I care about empathy for very practical reasons. The best product managers, designers, product teams, and leaders are experts at practicing empathy. They are able to understand and learn from the perspective of the other person—who might be a customer, a user of a product or service, or a stakeholder in the process of creating it. And their products somehow feel “just right” or “intuitive” to a million different individuals. This is no accident.

    Indi Young’s book is a practical manual for practicing empathy, which is a skill, not an innate talent. Empathy is a mindset that can be learned and improved with practice. There are best practices, techniques, and tools that help you get your own ego out of the picture and focus on what things are like from another person’s perspective. It is not easy to do really well, but it is worth doing really well! And Indi’s book shows you how to do it.

    Practical Empathy offers advice on how to practice an empathetic mindset toward other people involved in the conception, design, or implementation of a product. I find this to be particularly relevant in today’s modern high-tech company, where extreme time and resource pressures mix with high expectations and underconstrained choices. Companies respond by hiring all-star teams of diverse players, working cross-functionally with other teams.

    Somehow, these herds of high-tech cats need to purr together, like the cylinders in a Jaguar sedan. It doesn’t happen with top-down, military style command and control. It happens with collaboration, persuasion, negotiation, constructive compromise, and distributed decision-making. This requires empathy for the other person in all of these conversations.

    Many organizations also turn to measurement and statistical analysis to try to make evidence-based decisions and align all the players involved in product development around objective outcomes. This is a perfectly sensible thing to do, but not in isolation. Quantitative data-driven processes optimize for collective outcomes and ignore that which is not measured. Qualitative data-driven processes optimize for individual outcomes and embrace the messy complexity of case studies and user perspectives. How can we get usable data from this “softer” source to make decisions about qualitative things like user interfaces? Indi’s book offers valuable techniques to gather the subjective data of empathetic observation and conversation, and analytical tools to make sense of it.

    Tom Gruber, product designer and co-founder of Siri


    I am grateful to the people who offered enthusiasm, critique, and support. Thank you.

    For sticking with me through the journey of making this book happen: Lou Rosenfeld

    For his charming illustrations, which express the concepts in ways that words would fail: Brad Colbow

    For background discussions, references, and pointers: Shujie Zhu, Stephanie Noble, Karl Fast, Mike Oren, Daniel Szuc, Peter Morville, Brian Winters, Lisa Lurie, Julie Ratner, Karen Lindemann, Murray Grigo-McMahon, Kristian Simsarian, Troy Effner

    For conceptual critique, over food and/or chocolate: Christina Wodtke, Rainey Straus, Poornima Vijayashanker, Harry Max, Ted Weinstein, David Kadavy

    For inspiring tweets, articles, and presentations: Erika Hall, Kim Goodwin, Leah Buley, Kelly Goto, Karen McGrane, Irene Au, Nilofer Merchant, Nate Bolt, Dave Gray, Dan Brown, Marcin Treder, Mark Weiser, Patrick Whitney, Dana Chisnell, Brene Brown, Cheryl Strayed, Rebecca Mauleon, Pema Chodron, Alain de Botton, Seth Godin, David Kelley, Tom Kelley, James Thurber, Dan Klyn, Daniel Goleman

    For the review and critique of drafts: Carolyn Wan, Julie Hamwood, Mike Oren, Susan Weinschenk, Peter Morville, Daniel Szuc, Jonathan Baker, Alisan Atvur, Lou Rosenfeld

    For suggesting good FAQs: Stefan Freimark, Andrew Fung

    For helping me out of linguistic conundrums and mild aphasia: Grammar Girl,, Philip Ramsey, Marta Justak

    For reminding me to write in a translatable way: Stanley Chung, Masaki Sawamura, Wen Kai Qi, Jikun Liu

    For keeping me healthy: Lucy Simon, Marjorie Forman, Gus Young


    Customer Experience is now a key competitive differentiator; however, to truly stand out, organizations need to have and apply empathy for their customers.

    This wonderfully insightful book teaches us why empathy is important, how to gain it, and how to apply it within our businesses.

    Richard Dalton, AVP Experience Design, USAA

    Practical Empathy will convince designers and product managers how and why empathy is a key ingredient to both product innovation and organizational success.

    Sam Ladner, author of Practical Ethnography

    Practical Empathy is a straightforward guide to extracting greater ROI from the squishiness of empathy.

    Harry Max, VP Product AllClear ID

    Your product design should be informed by a deep understanding of user goals. In Practical Empathy, Indi outlines a way of working that goes beyond data-driven research methods to deliver genuine empathy for the people who use the things we make.

    Karen McGrane, author of Content Strategy for Mobile

    As a designer, manager, husband, and parent, a lot of people will tell you that you should listen more, but few are able to show you how it’s done. Practical Empathy analyzes in great detail what kind of mindset leads to serious listening. If you do a lot of interviews, you will already follow many of the mentioned principles unconsciously. To see the principles of listening and understanding uncovered and made clear is a powerful help to the daily activity of anyone working in the design business.

    Oliver Reichenstein, CEO and Founder, Information Architects, Inc.

    Understanding the ‘story of why’ is exactly the strategy we use to align our product roadmaps. Indi’s guide is clear and helpful, and shows how to develop empathy for users.

    Eric Fain, User Experience Architect for Autodesk Infraworks