UXD720 Week 6: Reading Week

Image credit: Annie Spratt

One of my biggest insecurities of the last module was my struggle with academic papers. I romanticised the idea of getting lost in scholarly literature, like Gandalf searching the old archives at Minas Tirith… At least once a week I found myself totally despondent at my inability to engage with peer reviewed articles.

It’s taken some time, but I’ve found myself getting more and more out of scholarly literature. The more I have read, the more a pattern has emerged; I’ve found a lot of value in medical journals – specifically, those concerning care and compassion in nursing and therapy.

While I have the buffer period of reading week, I’d like to cast an eye over some more medical literature, and explore how the best practices in medicine and therapy could inspire my own professional journey.

The requirement for practitioners to be empathetic is present in both UX and medicine. Paula McDonald et al., 2015, notes two components of empathy – the ability to understand how another person might be feeling (cognitive) and the ability to experience their emotions (affective).

The objective of user research is to build empathy for what users want or need to accomplish every day (Etches and Phetteplace, 2013). Building an understanding of users’ requirements seems to be well afforded by cognitive empathy. That begs the question: how could affective empathy benefit my practice?

Helen Riess, 2017, comments that empathy “requires cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and moral capacities to understand and respond to the suffering of others”, and recognises that “compassion is a tender response to the perception of another’s suffering (…) [that] cannot exist without empathy”.

Parsing these articles, I see affective empathy as a stepping stone towards compassion. In a Medium post, Auldyn Matthews, 2017, proposes that UX professionals should strive to be compassionate over empathetic, and (controversially) empathy alone falls short. A notion that, after reading around medical literature, I’m inclined to agree with.

Empathy alone gives us an understanding of our users. Compassion gives us understanding and the desire to end distress for our users. I’m looking forward to the spit-takes when I tell the community that I don’t want to be an empathetic UX designer.

Now, it’s a good start to declare that I want to be a compassionate UX designer, but fine words doth butter no parsnips. To make good on that promise, I looked for literature on how compassion is facilitated.

Chambers, Ryder, and Kagan, 2009, p. 84, offers guidance on effective listening in compassionate nursing. They refer to four types of listening (Vora and Vora, 2008):

  • Discriminative listening – paying attention to non-verbal cues and the delivery of language to infer emotion and the message behind the words.
  • Comprehensive listening – listening to understand and retain information.
  • Therapeutic listening – stimulating discussion for the altruistic purpose of bettering the person’s state.
  • Critical listening – listening to evaluate your own understanding of a situation.

I can recall using discriminative, comprehensive, and critical listening whilst conducting the user interviews for this module. Therapeutic listening may be the key to compassionate UX design.

Jonas-Simpson, et al. 2006, confirms the positive impact of being listened to on a patient’s quality of life. When someone feels they have been listened to, they feel unburdened and cared about. In turn, the relationship between the two parties is strengthened.

In the context of user research, a stronger relationship between me and my interviewees would return more open conversation – meaning more honest feedback and deeper insights. Not only that, my interviewees will walk away with a sense of fulfilment. My work will have already had a positive impact on their lives and they’ll be more open to engaging with future research, bettering my designs in the long run.

I’ll be able to apply these reflections in the coming months, as I take my prototype into new rounds of usability testing.


BIVINS, R., TIERNEY, S. & SEERS, K. 2017. ‘Compassionate care: not easy, not free, not only nurses’. BMJ Quality & Safety, 26, 1023-1026.

CHAMBERS, C., RYDER, E. & KAGAN, S. H. 2009. Compassion and Caring in Nursing. Oxfordshire: Taylor & Francis Group, 84.

ETCHES, A. & PHETTEPLACE, E. 2013. ‘Know Thy Users: User Research Techniques to Build Empathy and Improve Decision-Making’. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 53(1), 13-17.

JONAS-SIMPSON, C., MITCHELL, G. J., FISHER, A. JONES, G. & LINSCOTT, J. 2006. ‘The experience of being listened to: a qualitative study of older adults in long-term care settings’. Journal of Gerontological Nursing, 32(1), 46-53.

MATTHEWS, A. 2017. ‘From Empathy to Compassion: An Evolution in UX’. Auldyn Matthews [online]. Available at: https://medium.com/@auldyn.matthews/from-empathy-to- compassion-an-evolution-in-ux-3a56d4b31be9 [accessed 12/05/2021].

MCDONALD, P., ASHTON, K., BARRATT, R., DOYLE, S., IMESON, D., MEIR, A., & RISSER, G. 2015. ‘Clinical realism: a new literary genre and a potential tool for encouraging empathy in medical students’. BMC Medical Education, 15(1), 112.

RIESS, H. 2017. ‘The Science of Empathy’. Journal of Patient Experience, 4(2), 74-77.

VORA, E & VORA, A. 2008. ‘A Contingency Framework for Listening to the Dying’. International Journal of Listening, 22(1), 59-72.

Published by Josh 'Skoob' Brough

Experience enthusiast. UX/UI designer. Father to (little) one. Currently studying MA User Experience Design at Falmouth University. Here’s the chronicle.

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