There’s a myth in the business world that the best marketers are brilliant thinkers who are able to develop original concepts and impose their will on the market. The thinking goes that the best brands are built because some creative genius had an epiphany that they then blessed to the world. There’s another phenomenon going on at this very moment, and it’s a flood of new mobile/app/Internet users trying to use technology in ways that they’ve never had to in the past. (Zoom hangouts, anyone?)

That myth has always been flawed, at best, and right now it’s being exposed for what it is. The marketers who do have success during a market slowdown are the ones that borrow a simple, but powerful, principle from our friends in User Experience design: Empathy.

Applying Empathy

When designing a piece of software, we have the luxury of user feedback. That means whatever decisions are made about the size of text, the placement of buttons, or even the checkout process will be evaluated publicly as people start to use the products. UX designers can hold onto romantic stories and high-level concepts for only so long. Very quickly their work is either accepted or rejected by the end-users.

That level of feedback and its binary outcomes force a level of humility in the planning process. Assumptions, ideas, and theories will all be eventually exposed so, rather than imposing their own ideas, great user experience designers put their egos aside and do everything that they can to understand the wants, needs, and desires of their market. They study them, ask them for their input, and think through the user journey from the perspective of a variety of different use cases. When they do it well, they’re rewarded by the data.

Right now, great businesses are flexing their empathic muscles. They’re providing simplified e-commerce solutions for first-time buyers, they’re delivering closed-captioned instructional videos in place of hard-to-read text, and they’re re-introducing their products to a fresh new audience who may not be as aware of its features as the long-term, loyal customers.

There are obvious applications, like the way that Zoom and food delivery apps are creating simple how-to guides, and simplifying the onboarding process for new users. Right now millions of people who said that they’ve never used one of those app-thingys to order a burger are learning to do that very thing. The less obvious applications are businesses like craft beer delivery, stylists that are using video chat to help their clients maintain their hair, and retailers that have closed up shop and are now managing customer support through their online channels.

Slack usability tips

Typically when we’re building an online experience, whether that’s a website, an app, or even a social media content plan, we make the assumption that the majority of our users will be generally familiar with the medium that we’re using, and that our only hurdle will be to educate people on how we’ve chosen to use it. Right now, however, our users may have never seen a hamburger menu, or know to swipe up on an Instagram story, so it’s on us to take a cue from our friends in User Experience design and apply some of their basic principles to our work.

To start applying empathy to everything, the best thing that we can do is return to the 4 basic principles of good design:

  1. Usability
  2. The first, and most important, thing to plan in any design is that way that it works. Far too many amateur designers want to jump straight into to look and feel. They care more about the photos that we’ll use than whether people can get the job done that they came to us for. In every instance that we’re planning any content or experience for people, the first subject that we need to plan for is the functional usability of the thing. In other words, can people easily get what they came here for?

  3. Structure
  4. Once the basic function is planned, next we need to lay everything out in order. What do people need to see first? What do they need next? What if they want to skip to the end? How do we make sure that people always feel like they are in control of where they are? This principle of structure is just as important in advertising as it is in app design because, if we put the wrong message in front of the right person at the wrong time, we’ll confuse them and sabotage our entire strategy.

  5. Content
  6. Content is the body of the user experience. The text on the page, the embedded videos, and the messages that people receive amount to the user experience. Planning out content using empathy requires us to ask questions like: What is their reading comprehension level? Which languages do they feel most comfortable reading? What assumptions are we making about their understanding that may not be true?

  7. Front-end design
  8. Only once the first three principles are applied can, and should, we consider the look and feel of the experience. Yes, this is the topic that gets most of the attention, but it only matters if people can first get what they need in the way that they need it. Good front-end design, of course, respects your style guide, and it also considers who the user is and how we can make our content accessible and welcoming. It also considers whether all of the great work that we’ve done above will be noticed, and how it will be received. In that way, we can start to see that front-end design is in service to our user, rather than simply an exercise in creativity.

What we don’t need to be doing during this time of change is to fundamentally rethink what our business is and why it exists. What we do need to be doing is reconsidering not only how people are using our products, but who is using them, because you may find that right now you have a whole new audience that you hadn’t previously planned for.

You may even find that, by looking at your business through those four principles of UX design, new opportunities appear that you never saw before, like the way that @StableHouseBistro is asking people for their wine questions when they buy online gift cards, then answering them in costume and in character on their Instagram feed; or the way that Earls Restaurants have started to offer grocery delivery and ingredients to make their signature dishes.

I hope that everyone’s keeping safe and healthy, and that we can incorporate a bit of empathy into our work to help those who need it the most right now.