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Our ego is a bad designer

Based on the inspiring talk by Aaron Gustafson „Design with Empathy“ on beyond Tellerrand, I try to explain why design is not art and why the user should be our Nr. 1 priority when designing something for the web.

A few words about empathy

When working in technology it is easy to get caught up in the so technology and forget about the people that are using it. Yet neurons in our brain allow us to empathize with other human beings. But why do we still have problems to do so? Because we all have a little narcissist living in us, our ego. But let me get back to this a little later. First, we should determine what empathy even means and why it helps us to communicate with the user.

Scientists in Italy found out, that the same neurons in a monkey’s brain fired when he watched someone else eating a peanut as when he ate it himself. This is empathy, it lets us relate to someone’s feelings.

And here is how empathy helps us to communicate better.


  • requires listening to and engaging with others
  • requires questioning: we always need to ask why to be able to get to the bottom of an issue
  • requires observation: analytics can only tell us something but not all. It is important to experience firsthand how others interact with our design
  • requires intuition: especially during face-to-face interviews
  • requires patience: patience for problems of others that hinder them to perform
  • requires perspective: perspective is everything. Our ego separates (to some extent protects) us from other people but also doesn’t allow us to dig deeper. Only if we can upon up and be vulnerable, we can empathize with users.

Art is not Design


While art is a beautiful way of expression, no doubt about that, art is also very much about self-expression. Visual designers, content creators or programmers often get caught up in the artistic nature of design.

Or is there any other reason for an intro that needs to be skipped in order to proceed to the actual webpage? I don’t think so.

However, designers should get rid of their ego because designing is about solving problems, mainly the problems of others. Design is about being able to understand someone else’s problem and offering them an appropriate solution.

Something can be a beautiful piece of art but just not usable. In design, something unusable is totally useless. In that sense, design is art minus the ego. We can still be inspired by art or the creative spirit it comes with and yet design something useful.
In order to do so, we should always ask ourselves the following:

  • is it in service of the content?
  • are we making a task easier to accomplish?
  • are we being true to the purpose of the page?
  • or are we doing this only because we can?

So far so good but how can we put our ego’s aside?

Empathy tools in design

In communication, UX design or content creation you can work with personas. In website development with progressive enhancement.


Personas are prototypical user profiles that represent user groups and their goals, motivations, and behavior patterns. Therefore, personas are a good way to relate to the users.

But we have to keep in mind that personas are real and like real humans, they grow over time and need to be adapted and maintained. It is out of the question that the developed personas need to be understood by the entire design team.

Progressive Enhancement

Empathy also means considering someone else’s access to technology; not everyone is equipped with the newest smartphone or the fastest internet connection. Still, everyone should have the same access to your design. The golden rule is to treat everyone with respect. On the web, we can support equality with progressive enhancement.

Progressive enhancement starts with the basic experience and builds-up on this experience.

„Progressive Enhancement keeps the design open to the possibility of sexiness in opportune contexts, rather than starting with the „whole“ experience that must be compromised.“ – Benjamin Hoh

Javascript should be used to enhance the experience and not be made a requirement to have the experience at all. Progressive enhancement also means to hand over control to the user; give them the choice to have the bigger image resolution or to change the font size.

6 Empathy rules for designers

  1. Set a performance budget
    Start with the smallest possible way people will access your site (old phone, mediocre connection)
  2. Write for users not at them
    Write at an appropriate reading level. The tone of voice should be understandable for everyone. To check the reading level of your text, you can use the Flesh Index.
  3. Consider physical limitations
    Always consider people with physical limitations that are users of power keyboards, touch devise or screen readers. Text needs to be legible, buttons clickable.
  4. Facilitate satisfaction
    Make sure that it is easy for the users to fulfill the task they came for.
  5. Mobile first
    Mobile first encourages us to focus on the core purpose of our website. The outcome, we empathize with our users.
  6. Don’t force your agenda on your customers
    Don’t use pop-up’s, intro’s, and so on.

In case you would like to watch rather than read, here’s Aaron Gustafson’s talk for you:


Aaron Gustafson – Designing with Empathy – beyond tellerrand 2013 from beyond tellerrand on Vimeo.

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