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Empathy vs. Sympathy: Let Us Not Confuse The Two

Empathy isn't pity. To be empathetic isn't feeling sorry for someone. Empathy and sympathy are not synonyms. I'd argue that empathy is crucial for designing desirable products, whereas, sympathy is irrelevant to the design process. Since these two words have very different roles in the product development process, but are so frequently confused, let's break down the differences.

Rooted in the Greek term "pathy," both empathy and sympathy relate to feelings. The difference between empathy and sympathy is the perspective from which those feelings come from. The prefix "em" means "within." The prefix "sym" is a variant of "syn"- meaning "with."

Sympathy is Feeling from Your Perspective

To sympathize with someone is to acknowledge and value their feelings. Like the prefix states, you stand beside or "with" someone to give them your sympathy, from YOUR perspective of what they might be feeling.

Empathy is Feeling from Their Perspective

To empathize with someone is to understand their feelings by experiencing them from "within." By putting ourselves in someone else's shoes to experience feelings from THEIR perspective, we do more than notice their feelings, we feel them too.

Let's look at a few examples:

Sympathy is comforting your dog after he just crossed your electric fence.

Empathy is putting the shock collar on yourself and crossing over the fence.

Sympathy is wearing pink and holding your sister's hand as she battles cancer.

Empathy is shaving your head to match hers as she undergoes radiation.

Sympathy is cheering from the beach as your son takes his first surf lesson.

Empathy is jumping in the ocean to experience the lesson yourself.

We know that a deep understanding of the user is crucial for designing a desirable product with confidence. Since we ourselves are rarely the end user of the products we design, we rely on empathy to educate us. Empathy is our tool for experiencing the feelings of others that we don’t come to the table with ourselves. Assumptions from our perspective hold no value because the product is for them, not us. Empathy is a selfless pursuit of insights.

Insights rooted in a deep, genuine understanding of your customer will give you the confidence that your product solves a true need, delivers a delightful user experience, and boasts a resonating aesthetic. Throughout the product development process, draw insights and make decisions from your customer's perspective. After all, they are the ones who decide if your product is desirable.


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