The Power of Empathy In UX Design and Research

The Power of Empathy In UX Design and Research

Read time: 5 minutes

  • User experience is about much more than just interface and design. It’s also about meeting people exactly where they are and helping them achieve their goals.
  • The secret ingredient to One Drop’s UX: empathy.
  • With the right approach, empathy can create space for empowerment, trust, and confidence in one’s ability to manage their health.

When someone first joins the One Drop community, Vincent Santo, vice president of user experience (UX) at One Drop, knows it’s not for entertainment purposes; rather, it’s a step toward greater accountability in monitoring and managing their chronic condition. Whether they immediately realize it or not, One Drop can help fulfill the many unmet needs that can come with a chronic condition, from one-on-one health coaching to digestible health trend reports.

“People are entering data into our app, but they also want advice about that data,” explains Santo. “Our goal is to help them understand what they can be doing to both manage their chronic condition and evaluate how well they’re doing at managing it.”

Achieving that goal doesn’t just mean designing a solid interface for One Drop, continues Santo. It’s also about channeling a strong sense of empathy at every touchpoint in the experience. (Here’s how one of our health coaches leads with empathy in everything she does.)

The 3 Types of Empathy Behind One Drop

The most basic definition of empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. But, at One Drop, there are three main types of empathy that shape the experience for people managing or preventing a chronic condition, says Christine Costello, senior director of user research at One Drop.

“As a UX researcher, you’re really dealing with what we call cognitive empathy,” she explains. “You’re trying to step into someone else’s shoes and walk a mile in them, as the saying goes, so you can see things from their point of view, from their lived experiences, as opposed to looking at it as a product you’re trying to sell.”

Then there’s somatic empathy, continues Costello. “There’s a strong physical component to what we’re doing in the sensations that people feel when managing a chronic condition,” she explains. “For example, if you have to do finger pricks when testing your blood sugar, or operate a blood glucose meter, or stick a blood pressure monitor on your arm, it’s important for us to empathize with what that experience actually feels like.” And, to take it further, she adds, what does it feel like to have a high or low blood sugar event, or to worry that you may be in a hypertensive crisis? What words of encouragement would you want for those stressful moments, and what knowledge would you need in that moment to make the right decision for your health? 

Lastly, there’s affective empathy, which, according to Costello, is all about understanding the emotions that people experience as they navigate a chronic condition. “As UX researchers and designers, we’re always asking ourselves: How do you not only understand those emotions and sensations, but also make the person themselves feel that you understand them in a deep way and are there with them on their journey?”

Take food logging, for example. “That can be quite a burden,” says Costello, “but it’s important to be aware of your nutrition for a number of reasons, so we want to figure out ways to simplify that process and make it as easy as possible for people.”

Empathizing with some of those burdens and creating an easier food-logging process can not only mean getting a One Drop member a more well-rounded picture of their own health, but it can also provide Costello, Santo, and the rest of their team with the data they need to understand what’s working and what’s not for a member’s overall experience of the app. The more a member can engage with One Drop, the better One Drop can be in recognizing some of their unmet needs in living with a chronic condition.

“That’s where machine learning and a system called the adaptive supportive model (ASM) come in,” says Santo. “Thanks to the data science team, our machine learning is focusing on the right ways to reach out to members, whether we want to prompt them to do something or to acknowledge their effort and give them a pat on the back when they’re successfully building healthy habits.” (Learn more about the ASM and its predictive potential.)

Along the way, Santo and Costello’s team also collaborates with the behavior science and brand voice teams to ensure that each message, prompt, and notification strikes just the right tone of empathy, explains Santo.

“We’re also building out what you could call smart experiences,” he adds, “which is intended to bring members all manner of experiences—from coach recommendations and predictions to your most recent data logging—in a way that’s most meaningful for them. We might prompt members to ask themselves: How am I doing today? How am I trending in managing my condition? We want to acknowledge that members only have so much time in their day and that their experience in our app isn’t necessarily the main focus, but it is an important part of their health, and we want to try to be thoughtful and deliver as much value as we can in a compact, consumable way.”

How Empathy Breeds Trust and Empowerment

By infusing each and every UX initiative with a strong sense of empathy, Santo and Costello hope that their team not only helps people living with chronic conditions regain confidence in their self-care, but also helps promote feelings of empowerment and trust in how they manage their health.

“Again, when people join One Drop, they’re all in different places in their lives in terms of acknowledging and managing their health,” says Santo. “But, for everyone, the overall experience of One Drop can help provide a sense of ownership. People can rely on the feedback we give them to make decisions; they can trust the health data they’re seeing in the app; they can trust the information coming from our health coaches, or the charts and predictions we show them. That trust can empower people to take action to address whatever their condition may be or whatever the next step is in their journey.”

Whether that next step is to experiment with a new healthy habit or to start taking medication, Costello recognizes the important role that she and her team can play in the lives of One Drop members.

“It’s really rewarding to know that we can impact someone’s life in such a profoundly great way,” she says. “That’s what resonates most with me.”

Interested in joining their team? Check out One Drop’s Careers page to see what opportunities are available.
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Allie Strickler
Feb 15, 2022

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