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How Einfuhlung and Starbucks Make You a Better Website Builder

In the mid-1800s, a German philosopher coined the term Einfühlung. The internet is not quite sure who deserves credit, as it appears both Rudolf Hermann Lotze and Robert Vischer first used the term in about the same decade. Both were aesthetic psychologists — they studied the way humans relate to art. Einfühlung, loosely translated, means “feeling into.” The psychologists used it to describe the way a human projected his or her feelings onto the natural world around them. In aesthetic psychology, the word described the way one human looks at a created object and experiences a feeling or emotion from the viewing.

Theodor Lipps, a German philosopher and famed university professor, borrowed Einfühlung into psychology to explain how we understand that the people around us also have selves. Sigmund Freud (a passionate admirer of Lipps) in turn took Einfühlung to represent the ‘process that allows us to understand others by putting ourselves in their place.’

In 1908, an Englishman named Edward Titchener moved to Cornell University and took a position as a professor of psychology. He later went on to create great fame and recognition. But before all that, he translated Einfühlung into English (with help from the Greek): empathy.

Slim hands wearing silver rings are cupped around a smartphone. The background is out of focus, and the photo is dreamy in golds and dark browns.

Which brings us to the present day. “Empathy” is steadily rising to meet “sympathy” in all of my comparative examinations. We hear it used in the news. We see it expressed (or blatantly disregarded) in online forums and in anonymous online personalities. Just in 2014, empathy played a key role in Gamer Gate, #YesAllWomen, and Ferguson. We’re even seeing it in marketing. And empathy is a key term for teams building websites, for the curators of our digital landscape. But what does that even mean?


Shift mental gears with me now: we understand the concept of empathy, of being able to feel how someone else might be feeling in a given scenario.

Shift to the world of internet marketing, where my job as a content strategist and UX specialist is to look at a website and imagine what someone might want to do or find on said website. And also imagine what that website might make someone else feel.

There’s been a lot of talk about “empathy” in the industry lately, but more and more of what I read is empathy between creators, empathy from one discipline to another, empathy with partners or brands. And these are well, and these are good. But these are not the majority, clamoring for understanding from marketers.

Some people are getting this right. Gmail’s “empty inbox” smiley face is one example (read Jake Haugen’s analysis here.) The free ab workout app my friend Brooke recommended: if you complete a 5 minute workout — whether you did the crunches exactly like the girl in the video or you lay in the floor struggling to pull off just one crunch — the app bursts into applause for you. Instagram added an “edit post” option — they know that you don’t always think of the best caption right away and might like to change it later.

Here’s the point I want to make: we are all human. As humans, we all use or touch or depend on the Internet (as do politics, government structures, retail, industry, food and beverage which we each rely on — you get the point — it’s all interconnected). As marketers, as people making the Internet, the best way to show empathy — to feel into what users are trying to achieve — is possibly the simplest way: ask them.

Ask your users what their goals are. Ask what they hoped to find on your site. Ask what bothered them or felt pretentious. Ask what details brought delight. Here are a few practical ideas that I use all the time:

  • Surveys. I know, we all hate popups. But when a user’s been on a page for more than one minute, there may be a problem. It makes sense to pop a survey and ask, “Are you finding everything ok? What are you looking for?” You don’t have to ask for an email or any kind of conversion — just knowing what the user wants to see is valuable. And don’t be afraid to offer open forms; multiple choice just limits the answers to what you already know. The same goes for your search function — does it work? Are you checking what people are searching for? Have you made those search queries more available on your site? And ditto for your contact form — what are users asking for? Have you given it to them yet? This is all shudder low hanging fruit.

Understanding what your users are searching for and making it easy to find is empathy.
  • Coffee shops are a great place to find a mix of users from every demographic. If you don’t have the budget for a huge panel test, buy ten $10 gift cards at your chosen local shop and camp out. Offer to buy someone's coffee, then ask people if they don’t mind helping you with research. Have them walk through two or three pre-defined tasks on the site. Start with common userflows (like finding what the company does or how to sign up for the service) then move to the more complicated tasks on the site (like signing up for a newsletter or creating a new account). Every time they pause, stumble, frown, or say “um” ask them what they’re looking for. What would they rather see? Why did it feel complicated?

Using the language your users use to talk about your product or service is empathy.
  • Heatmaps, especially when paired with event tracking and GA data, are great “why” tools. I recently discovered users were trying to click a series of icons on my site that I thought were clearly illustrative. The more we asked “why” we realized they were clicking the mobile phone icon in hopes of being able to call. Which opened up a whole new can of worms: why did they need to call? What questions hadn’t we answered on the site?

Finding out why your users click or scroll rather than just where they do is empathy.
  • (this is NOT a paid plug — I adore their service and use it on everything). They offer Peek, a free, brief user test on any website, mobile site, or app. It’ll get you hooked. The users’ videos always turn up one thing I was suspicious of (the button copy isn’t clear enough — they don’t know what to expect) or one thing I never even thought of (there is no concise explanation of what this site is/does on the homepage).

Listening to your users rather than assuming you know how they think is empathy.
  • Exit surveys and followup. A lot of services offer a “secret sauce” feature — when they realize a user is about to bounce, they offer a pop up, layover, etc. that asks what the user thought or what stopped them from converting. And we all know people are usually willing to tell you when you got something wrong. If you’re running an email campaign, have you sent a followup survey asking how the experience was or what you can do better?

Admitting to your users that you’re not there yet and you’re trying to be better is empathy.

But the most important part of empathy — the part that’s easiest to overlook in web design and in real life — is not only listening to what your users say, but implementing changes that will make their lives easier. It’s taking the extra three minutes on every project to make sure it’s made for your users. Because let’s be honest: if your users are unhappy with your website, the buck stops there.


Previously published on Medium. Thanks, James, for your honesty and advice on this piece. And that badass title.

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