Indy Young – Practical Empathy

We just read this book at the UX Bookclub Sydney. Nhung Nguyen has also reviewed the book very adeptly here.

What the book is about

In a sentence, Practical Empathy is a passionate defence of the productivity of “unproductive” listening. The key objective of the book is to assert the importance and value of listening to others without a predefined objective.

Young describes this kind of listening in a couple of ways – for example, she talks about it as “person-focused research”, as opposed to solution-focused research. That’s because she wants us to recognize that there is more to talking to customers than evaluating a product or interface design. This is customer research that isn’t at the service of validating a solution. What’s more, Young attempts to describe a kind of research that isn’t part of a design or build project, but is a valuable activity in its own right.

We are still talking about research that attempts to create value for an organisation, though, and in that sense, it’s still UX and not academia. But like acadmic research, the focus is on understanding.


Most of the book is a discussion of practices that help to build empathy, but I think it’s worth getting a handle on the value of building empathy at all, since in lots of ways it’s quite counterintuitive tfo most business measures.

The value of practicing empathy lies in three things:

  1. its longevity
  2. its ability to generate valuable ideas
  3. its contribution to better decision making

“Empathy allows you to expand the number of angles you consider when you make something – it increases your horizon… Empathy will also improve your clarity about your strategy. You will be able to deliberate with intelligence between options in terms of target audience or direction.” (106)

Young also writes that “The application of empathy that has impact on your work is to use it in support of someone.” (39, orig italics) Young focuses on support, because she wants to promote a focus on outcomes that have nothing to do with a particular product or interface. In fact, she argues that most projects end up focused on an interface from the moment they’re given a name – the mobile app project for example, and this gets in the way of focusing on the people you’re trying to benefit.

For my part, I think this emphasis on support is a nice complement to the Agile principle of focusing on outcomes over outputs – in this case, ensuring that outcomes are people-centred.


So, how do you do it. Well, it turns out it’s not as easy as it sounds. The kind of listening we do every day is very different to the kind that Young wants to promote. Following Kevin Brooks, Young points out that we’re usually listening “for an opening in the conversation, so you can tell the other person what came up for you, or you listen for points … you can match, add to, joke about, or trump.” (49f) It sounds quite damning when you put it like that, but the point about empathy is that it’s hard and requires practice.

The bulk of the challenge in being “a true listener” (50) lies in resisting these normal urges to constrain or preprocess another’s words with your own concerns.

But FWIW Young suggests that the personal rewards themselves are quite fulfilling – you may achieve something akin to Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow”.

There’s a false friend here. It can be tempting to adopt the attitude of a professional interviewer, but this is a mistake. Interviewers often have an agenda, starting with a set of questions, and are often busy deciding on their next question. All of this takes energy and focus away from the speaker.

Here are Young’s suggestions for adopting and maintaining the attitude of a “true listener”.

  1. Experiences over preferences – To avoid an agenda, focus on a real event in the life of the speaker, and ask them to talk through their experience of that event.
  2. Explore the intent – Don’t offer your own interpretations for validation (“So, what you’re saying is .., yes?”). Instead ask open questions like “what (else) were you thinking at the time?”
  3. Make sure you understand – Recognise when you’re making an assumption, and ask for more information (not validation). Look out for casual phrases like “I knew he meant business…” and don’t leave their meaning implied. NOTE: the point is not to look like you understand. “You want to do the opposite: demonstrate to her that you don’t know anything about her thinking. It’s her mind and you’re the tourist.” (My favourite quote)
  4. Follow, don’t lead
    • Start with a broad topic
    • Resist the urge to jump on topics that you find interesting
    • Don’t say “I” – It puts you in control of the conversation. Not “I’d like you to tell me more about…”, instead “You said something about…?”
    • Never switch abruptly
    • Never say “Okay, great.” – This phrase “smacks of your hurry to get through the session” (65)Pick up a thread that the speaker has left hanging, or simply conclude the conversation
    • Mirror the mood
  5. Don’t play the researcher
    • Don’t take notes
    • Don’t demonstrate how smart you are
  6. Use the fewest number of words – “Why’s that?” “What were you thinking?” “Because?”
  7. Use the speaker’s vocabulary – don’t introduce your own words
  8. Reiterate a topic – as briefly as possible – even just a word or two “Now, what about that gate…?”
  9. Be aware of your emotions and neutralise them
    • Emotions as honoured guests – “Hello Anger, what brings you here today?”
    • Practice meditation
    • Even neutralise those emotions you share with the speaker
      • Don’t assume emotional empathy means you understand.

What to listen for

  • When engaged in empathetic research, listen for these three components:
    • Reasoning (inner thinking) – go beyond the causal explanation of events
    • Reaction – look out for reactions as they are buoys on the sea of inner thinking
    • Guiding Principles – if reactions are the buoys then guiding principles are the anchors – automatic thoughts that have a general application, like “everything in it’s right place”

What to ignore

Young recommends ignoring these details when reviewing your transcripts

  • Explanations
  • Facts
  • Opinions
  • Preferences
  • Generalisations
  • Passive behaviours (heard that, read that, saw that)
  • Conjecture
  • Concepts out of scope

What we are interested in

In short: a) emotional reactions and b) intentional behaviours

The task Young sets us is to generate Summaries capturing these from our transcripts. The Summaries remind me of User Stories in their formulaic structure:

  • Start with a verb
    • Form the sentence in the first-person present tense, just drop the “I”
    • Convey emotional reactions as verbs (e.g. I feel frustrated, I fear, I enjoy)

What I like about the book

UX as Connection

In lots of ways this book fits in with what I think of as anti-representationalist UX, which is UX that sees itself as facilitating a connection with customers, rather than creating representations of them (the most common representation being a persona).

This comes out in Young’s plea to “drop the script,” i.e. to talk to customers in an unstructured way. For Young, it’s only in these unstructured conversations that we have any chance of hearing something that we really don’t expect. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with structured interviews – it’s just that they can inadvertently foreclose on the possibility of generating new ideas.

Later, Young is quite explicitly anti-persona, preferring “behavioural segments” which don’t involve, or imply, any demographic data.

I think it’s bold for Young to treat the building of empathy with customers as a project in its own right, rather than a technique to apply during a project.

What could’ve been better

Making the case

While I’m sympathetic to Young’s ambitions, and I broadly agree with her definition of empathy, and despite the testimonial from Sam Ladner promising just this, I don’t feel like she offers any way of demonstrating why or how this is worth the effort.

She makes it clear that it is very rare for an organisation to invest in building genuine empathy, and perhaps that’s a good enough reason to have this book. But for my part, I can’t see how I could possibly use anything here to argue for the resources or time required to do this properly.

Finding patterns

It’s a closely related criticism, but I found the section on analysing the summaries that come out of empathetic listening to be quite weak. In some ways, this isn’t surprising, since the whole point is to be agnostic about outcomes and focus on connecting with people.

But it still concerns me that Young offers little more here than “Confront data. Find patterns.” I feel that this section could have benefited greatly from some real world examples – after all, the great risk you take with this kind of project is that you will literally discover nothing. It’s quite possible that no new patterns emerge from your work. How do you dig deeper? On the other hand, how do you avoid getting hypnotised by a bright shiny big idea, which isn’t actually a pattern at all.

If you read one thing

Chapter 2-4 were the highlight for me, and do a great job of communicating the distinctiveness and challenges of empathetic listening.

<Philosophical Nerdgasm>

Those who know me, know I enjoy finding parallels between techniques and approaches to UX and philosophical theories, usually phenomenology, and as usual, I see one here.

I think Indy Young’s book can be seen as recapitulating the shift between the knowledge-focused phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, and the ethical phenomenology one of his best interpreters, Emmanuel Levinas.

For both Husserl and Levinas, phenomenology is a method for paying attention to the world around us, in such a way that we set aside our preconceptions about how the world is made up, in order to better understand our relationship to it.
Most of the talk of affordances in HCI and UX can draw a direct line back to the work of phenomenologists like Husserl (and especially Merleau-Ponty). However, what distinguishes the phenomenologies of Husserl and Levinas – crudely – is the priority they give to relationships with things vs relationships with people.

Husserl is interested in this relationship as the foundation of knowledge – that is, he’s interested in how things in the world can play the role of providing evidence for our beliefs. Because of that, he’s focused on how things present themselves as something (as a book, as a button), and also how things can surprise us, and force us to change the way we see them.

Interestingly, Indy Young’s earlier book, Mental Models, is a great example of practical Husserlian phenomenology. People have preconceptions about the world around them. The role of a UX researcher is the same as the phenomenologist. We need to find ways of suspending our own preconceptions, so that we can make explicit those of our customers. We need to understand the concepts they are using, but deeper than that, we need to understand how the affordances in our interfaces make those concepts appropriate. An interface component appears to a user as something in their mental model. On the other hand, if it has no place in that model, it appears at best as meaningless, and at worst, as confounding.

Levinas, who translated Husserl’s early work into French, and in doing so, initiated a whole stream of 20th Century French philosophy, came to regard Husserl as mistaken in focusing on the relationship with things. Levinas argues that evidence is one kind of value that something has for us. But if we want to understand the source of this, or any other kind of value, we need to focus not on our relationship with things, but our relationship with people.

It is, first and foremost, our sense of others as others, which gives value to the things around us. Things can present themselves to me as things, independent of me, because I am already in a relationship with other consciousnesses. But what’s important here is not just that I recognise some objects in the world around me as people. In fact, what Levinas is getting at has nothing to do with whether this other is a human being or not. Instead, it’s the idea that another perceiving being is presented to us not as a thing, but as a call, and this call has a kind of hold over us. I like to think of as a kind of invitation. Once invited, there’s nothing you can do to avoid responding, because even doing nothing counts as a response.

The key point, though, is that this call or invitation is creative – it is the source of value in our world. Like Young, Levinas puts empathy at the heart of all understanding, and like Young, he sees that empathy as generative. What’s more both Levinas and Young recognise that if we only approach others in terms of their ability to prove or disprove a theory – if we treat them as evidence for or against a belief. We cut ourselves from the most important source of value to which we have access.


Update: Psychological Definitions of Empathy

As a follow up to our discussion about cognitive vs emotional empathy, I found a good description of different types of empathy in Peter Singer’s new book The Most Good You Can Do.

He writes (p77):

A test used by psychologists to assess empathy, the Interpersonal Reactivity Inventory, measures four distinct components:

  1. Empathic concern is the tendency to experience feelings of warmth, compassion, and concern for other people;
  2. Personal distress is one’s own feeling of personal unease and discomfort in reaction to the emotions of others;
  3. Perspective taking is the tendency to adopt the point of view of other people; and
  4. Fantasy is the tendency to imagine oneself experiencing the feelings and performing the actions of fictitious characters

The first two nicely distinguish feeling for someone, and feeling with them – two different kinds of emotional empathy, I guess.

It’s the third, Perspective Taking, that captures cognitive empathy – though I’m sure Indy Young is talking about an ability to adopt another’s point of view, and not just a tendency to do so.

Interestingly, one of the illustrations in the book – in which the empathetic listener imagines herself floating behind the astronaut she’s listening to (Fig 4.3, p64) – suggests that Fantasy is a prerequisite for Perspective Taking, or at least a technique for cultivating that skill, which is itself an interesting idea.

Indy Young’s Practical Empathy is available from Rosenfeld Media. There’s lots of supporting material at

Indy Young – Practical Empathy

2 thoughts on “Indy Young – Practical Empathy

  1. Nhung Nguyen says:

    Hi Justin, I’ve finally got a chance to read through your post properly. It was very thorough & extensive. You’ve captured all the key points & advice from the book which I’ve missed.

    +1 for your point on this:

    While I’m sympathetic to Young’s ambitions, and I broadly agree with her definition of empathy, and despite the testimonial from Sam Ladner promising just this, I don’t feel like she offers any way of demonstrating why or how this is worth the effort.

    Re ‘Finding patterns’

    On defense of data – people don’t always do what they say or say what they do. I think that’s one of the reason why we stick with evidence-based world. But also agree with Indi Young that people tend to ‘manipulate’ data to whatever argument they like to make.

    Must admit I’ve got a bit lost with the philosophical nerdgasm 🙂

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