“empathy is our honest answer to the question, ‘why did they do what they did?’”

seth godin

If we don’t make the effort to understand why people behave as they do, we’re unlikely to create better designs that influence change. Once we know what our audiences believe, where they come from and what information they have, we’re armed and ready to be relevant.

But when design time and budgets are tight, there can be scant regard for empathy. Yet without it, we’re designing for numbers instead of people. Luckily there are UX stealth tools we can use to minimise the risks of not fully researching the user (sorry, ‘person’).

At We Love Digital we package quantitative and qualitative tactics together, because understanding why and how a problem is happening helps clients to prioritise issues in order to get the most from their budgets. Here are just a few of the tools I’ve used:

creating a mental model

Our reptilian brains are hardwired to spot patterns and create mental models. In fact, you’re doing it right now, or when you walk around Waitrose, or wherever you are. Once you’ve learnt your environment, it’s incredibly hard to relearn it and spot the flaws in it, which is why I always do a product review at the very beginning of a design challenge.

the importance of product reviews

Product reviews are a way for designers to map an environment in their minds, which we then use to get ideas on where interaction issues may be. It’s an effective way for a designer to empathise, share and record the perspective of a novice user.

Getting a fresh perspective on how new visitors ‘learn’ about an interface, space or environment is the best way to understand where it could be improved.

Find out about the types of people who use the interface. If it’s a shopping app, are they breast-feeding a baby at 4am and ordering nappies at the same time? This should help you put yourself in their shoes a little more.

Describe the tasks they need to complete and list the sub-tasks involved in each step (e.g. finding baby items, locating nappies, filtering them by price and quantity, and so on). You can learn more about task analysis here.

Record the narrative of each action – e.g. a filter button prompts the user to refine a selection. Record every detail and element that forces users to think twice, distracts them, blatantly misleads them or possibly makes them cry. Record the things that make them smile too – things that confirm where they are and what they’ve done.

Jakob Neilsen’s10 Usability Heuristics Explained is conveniently concise. Bruce Tognazinni’s ‘First Principles of Interaction design’ is also an excellent starting point.

But I recommend adapting the guidelines you benchmark to the interface you’re reviewing. If you’re reviewing a form, for example, there are UX best practices specifically around details like label alignments, grouping fields and so on. If you’re reviewing a mobile app, consider the issues that arise from being distracted and having a small screen.

data – an indicator that needs humanising

You’ll now have a ton of ideas on where problems might be. But unless you have a mega-pot of gold, how is that really going to help anyone? We can’t fix every problem. But we can use data to understand which issues to focus research, design and development efforts on. So which numbers help us? Here are some metrics to get you started:

In-page analytics – Where do people click on pages? Are they missing that key call to action?

Bounce rates – How many people come to a page and leave immediately?

Navigation flows – How do people get to that product catalogue page? How many of them then look at other products?


The more insights you can get, the more evidenced your solutions will be. So gather as much as you can. Here are just a few resources you can use:

Usability hub
A free and rapid testing resource for getting feedback. This is good for answering questions like “Where would people click to find ‘x’?” Or “Would they engage with this layout or another one?”

Tree testing and card sorting
Do customers understand the lingo on your menus? Do they expect to find ketchup under condiments or sauces? Or both? Use these tools to get a better understanding of where your menus are making people’s brains hurt.

Guerrilla testing
Give people £5 to let you watch them doing a task on your product. This is a fantastic way to get a richer idea of why people do what they do and it enables you to build empathy with minimal resources.

social listening

If you know that your target audience is active on social, see what they’re doing. What are they saying? What are their concerns? What do they respond to? Read and feel.

competitor analysis

If you’re forever chasing your competitors’ coat-tails, how can you really get ahead? However, twinned with an expert review, this is a great way to start discussions around improvements. Using the checklist from our reviews, we score competitors against it to get a stronger idea of which ones are leading the way.

content audit

This is perfect for content-heavy sites and one of the best ways to understand structure and IA issues. The first part involves stepping through each page and outlining what’s on it. On deep sites the issues are often on those third- and fourth-level pages, so we get into as much detail as time allows, outlining how well they meet the needs of both the business and users.

consumers - designing
share findings in an accessible way

Finally we share our findings in a straightforward, jargon-free and ideally, fun way. Audience persona cards is just one example. This means people can get excited about their audiences whilst they’re learning new things about them.


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