An overused buzzword? Realities of designing with empathy

Approaching user research on intimate topics.


Sophie Kreitman

3 years ago | 4 min read

Often times we use the word empathy as a core design principle, but are we really doing our part in staying true to that in our everyday practice? It seems like a given, of course we do! But the truth is, there are just some products that require more of it than others. Eg: mental health, debt, fertility, divorce..I’m talking about the heavy hitters here.

I wanted to write about this topic because I recently worked on a passion project inspired by a friend undergoing her second round of IVF treatment (In Vitro Fertilization) without success. I didn’t know much about infertility at the time, and have since been opened up to a world of struggles that millions of women face every day, and very few talk about.

Fast forward, I designed a mobile app for women to use while undergoing IVF treatment. I chose UCSF (University of California San Francisco) as this was the platform my friend had used and they did not yet have a mobile application for the fertility clinic.

Now, let’s back up.

I was first inspired to do this project when my friend was sharing the latest on her IVF experience, and mentioned how horrible the process was.

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor! But from what I’ve learned, IVF is an endless cycle of legal paperwork, ultrasound appointments, daily self injections, bloodwork, and an empty wallet (yes, this sort of thing is not typically covered by insurance).

All hopefully resulting in, you guessed it — a baby! But the unfortunate truth is a lot of times it takes multiple rounds, not to mention these women or couples have already had several failed attempts at pregnancy in the past. The emotions, stress levels, and societal pressures are all caving in around them.

So, my goal from the very beginning was simple. How can we make this process easier? How can we alleviate some of the stress? In the end, we created a useful tool to help with some of the logistics.

Features included things like an integration with docusign, a resource page with injection tutorials and a glossary, a messaging chat (hello captain obvious!), lab results, and most importantly; a calendar for appointments and reminders. But how did I get there?

Well sure, research! But it was the process I took to access patients and build empathy during sensitive conversations that made it powerful. User interviews are critical for a topic like this, but not easy to come by. I had to not only strategize how to find people who have gone through IVF, but hope they would be willing to share their intimate stories with a total stranger.

How to find users to interview on sensitive subjects

  1. Start small. Luckily, my friend who sparked this whole project idea happens to be in the medical field herself and is very open to talking about her experiences. But many people are not, and I knew I had to reach a wider audience. I posted to public forums, and of course reached out to everyone I knew asking if they knew of anyone who has gone through IVF, and when I finally got one person, things started flowing organically.
  2. Domino effect. Once you have a meaningful conversation with one person, they will most likely know one or two more people who might be willing to share too. Basic networking strategy here but it’s not something we typically ask in interviews.
  3. Impact. In this instance, I wasn’t looking for 50 users to talk with for ten minutes each. I wanted an in depth understanding of a few women’s experience and to get that I spent on average 45–90 minutes with each woman I spoke with..This was actually their doing! I didn’t request more than 30 minutes but every single person ended up using the time as more of a conversation with a friend or a therapy session to unleash months or even years of stress they hadn’t felt ready to share with family or friends. In total I spoke with 10 women for interviews and again later for user testing.
  4. Be Genuine. It should go without saying, but if you are going to sit down with a person and ask about intimate details of their life you have to come prepared, give them your full attention, and have whole hearted drive to help find a solution to their problem or challenge.
  5. Flexible Structure. Normally I would have a long list of questions and a brief intro script when interviewing users, but to really stick to #4, I didn’t want to come across as too formal. I had questions ready, but actually started the conversations more open ended and asked for them to simply share their story. A lot of people will argue it’s bad to go off script because it’s too broad and can be overwhelming for the user. But it’s also important to read the room, and be flexible with your approach. In this case, it developed trust upfront, which exponentially helped with #1; Impact.

Sticking to your goal

What all of this helped with the most is sticking to the project goals as I dove into the design. By the time I developed my persona, storyboards and started user flows, I understood the user needs so well it felt like I had gone through IVF myself.

My point in sharing here is to always remind ourselves not fall into a monotonous habit of doing research just to do research. Or to just validate your assumptions. Be curious, and have empathy. Why are you doing it? What do you need to find out? and Who do you need to better understand?

See Full Case Study Below


Created by

Sophie Kreitman







Related Articles