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Adam Smith

Managing Director

Empathetic Design And Method Acting Technique

As everyone probably knows, Method Acting is a group of techniques that actors use to attempt to 'become' their character, in order to develop lifelike performances. What has this got to do with the web? - Well, for reasons unknown I ended up watching a documentary on this very technique last week, and more and more I realized that our approach to UX isn't all that different. Bear with me!....

Generally speaking, method acting combines both the actor's careful consideration of a character's psychological motives with a deep personal identification with the character. This sort of thinking is absolutely imperative when creating a truly engaging website. When designing the user experience (UX), you need to step into your visitors shoes, empathising with both their mindset and their end motive. If ever you've had a seamless experience with a website, it's because the designers had your specific objectives and psychological motives at the forefront of their mind during development.

This is not an easy task, especially in an inward facing environment, which is possibly why a large number of sites still get this wrong. Information you find interesting is rarely the same as what users find interesting, and second guessing what they want to hear without truly understanding what makes them tick, is suicide. There is a silver-lining though. It seems everyone has woken up to UX being a fundamental step of web design. UX expert roles are popping up all over the place, and a lot of brands are certainly starting to reap the benefits of a well thought out website.

Lee Strasberg (the initial developer of the method acting system) would pose the question: "What would motivate me, the actor, to behave in the way the character does?" By asking actors to access their own personal experiences, they can then truly identify with the emotional lives of their character.

There's so much in parallel here to how a great UX practitioner approaches a website. By drawing on their own experiences, they can establish an emotional connection with the visitor, creating the best ways to engage them.

Real World Empathy

We speak to a lot of clients, some with very sophisticated AB testing systems, who have spent years fine tuning their goal funnels in order to extract every last drop of conversion out of their visitors. These clients understand that when you've done most of the obvious stuff and tweaked to perfection, there is a natural limit - and traditionally this ceiling is formed by the spectrum of visitors to the site. If you have a great product, with emotive messaging, the colour of a button isn't really going to make much difference - especially when there's probably a lot of more successful quick wins left to complete.

Captain Obvious will be able to answer 50% of UX problems, and the other 50% is about pure empathy. Empathy is derived from taking yourself out of the project, and in turn, truly becoming the visitor. Thinking like the visitor and understanding their questions, concerns and motivations. Once you can achieve this, the results really start to show.

Have a look at your current homepage as it is today. Is it empathetic to your visitors? Does it address their personal motivations and concerns? Is their primary information objective or first question answered immediately? How easy have you made it so that they can qualify your service / product without too much thought based on what we know about their personal motivations?

Emotional Extraction

Understanding the difference between the functional and emotional benefit from each of your service/product features is an important component to creating empathy with your end users. Functional benefits only tell you what you can expect to receive by purchasing your product or service. This is drastically different to the more abstract emotional benefits you may feel by purchasing. This isn't fluffy BS, it's a powerful tool.

To test this, list the range of functional benefits of your service or product. This can be anything from a descriptive benefit of a product (such as 'full colour laminating') all the way to how quickly your customers may receive their item ('next day delivery') for a service.

For each feature listed, see if you are communicating the emotional benefit to your target audience. Are you managing to be empathetic to the way your target audience might be feeling? Are you connecting with them or simply addressing a basic need?

For example, if you are running a business card printing service, 'full colour laminating', might be highlighted as a feature.

No one really gets out of bed thinking about the finish and number of colours on their business card - they don't really gives two hoots - but they do give a fair number of said hoots to wanting to look impressive, come across professional and show that they value quality. This is the derived benefit. In this instance, the literal messaging isn't talking to the visitor on an emotional level. By only mentioning a literal benefit, we're asking the user to take the burden and create the mental connection to something more meaningful. Shortcutting this makes your service far more appealing from the outset.

Defining Levels of Importance

This is where most people manage to get their website upside down. What I mean by this is a website that keeps its benefit gems, the absolute corkers, at the bottom of the page, whilst all the obvious 'so what' stuff is at the top. To make sure you aren't hiding your best bits, place your homepage statements into the following three categories:


Standard and expected. A customer won't buy without this feature or benefit, but that doesn't mean it's connecting with their needs. Every product in the category offers it and even your competitors do. You'll be surprised at how many websites dedicate a large proportion of their homepage to 'expected features'. To prove this I randomly searched for 'IT Support London' and clicked on the first relevant result. The messaging on the homepage reads: 'working with you to gain an understanding of your Business IT Support needs'. That's completely expected of an IT Support firm. If you didn't work to understand my needs, I wouldn't work with you. I sometimes call this the 'so what?...' test. If you can imagine someone saying 'so what' - remove it.

Adds Value

This statement adds value, but most customers probably won't purchase on this factor alone. Still, it does help differentiate you from your competitors. Not all of your competitors offer this benefit. Looking again at the previous IT company, under a small heading at the bottom, they offer a 'Free Infrastructure Audit'. Yes - this is added value. It's not a common practice to offer and I'm starting to think about staying on the page to read more.

Will Buy

This is it. Wow… really? You can do this? This is what customers will definitely choose over a competing product or service. It really is that valuable. Going back to our friends at the IT support company, I rummaged deep within the pages and noticed that they offer an option for a no-strings rolling contract - even starting with a free trial. This is unique, risk free and even empathises with my concerns, and yet, it wasn't even on the homepage. An empathetic approach would have known this was what the end user wanted and would have worked emotionally to remove any purchase fear or risk.

Final Act

As you can see, using similar empathetic techniques we can really ensure that your UX is emotionally led. Don't think as internally about why your organisation is great - but instead, think from a customers point of view. Buy their attention 5 seconds at a time, starting with strong emotive messaging. This is just as effective as any UX decisions in terms of layout and information architecture, and bridges the gap between the Copywriter and the UX strategist. Your product or service experience needs to be empathetically articulated, in order to drive true engagement with your visitors.