Journalistic Questioning: Asking What, How, and Why

A straightforward way to step into a user’s shoe is by gathering the underlying factors and motives that drive user behaviors as well as their personal experience with certain scenarios. Through a conversational interview, the designer can gauge user feedback by recording the user’s actual opinion, not the designer’s interpretation, about a product or situation. For example, to empathize with patients who are often confused by doctors’ notes or medical reports, a document designer can ask the patients what causes them frustration or confusion, how they peruse medical documents, and why they have particular preferences. These authentic feedbacks are more valuable than guesses made by designers who may have not been through the emotional experiences of an actual patient.


Thanks to the growing affordability of video and photographing technologies— via smartphones and hands-free devices—photo and video-based user studies have become popular empathizing methods in design thinking. Similar to diary studies, photovoice is a user-engaged method that gives designers a glimpse of their users’ everyday lives. Participating users document the ways they interact with given scenarios using photographed images or video recording, hence photovoice. Designers can draw from these artifacts when interviewing their users and observe any emergent user behaviors in the documentary. This visual research method is different from other traditional user research approaches as it exposes the mundane yet insightful aspects of user experience that often get overlooked by designers.

Empathy Mapping

Much of empathizing with users is about getting a fiiller picture about their human experience. Empathy mapping is a fundamental tool for capturing the affective characteristics of a user that may be used to create personas and user requirements later in the design process. The key in this practice is to consider the user as a whole person, not just an agent or character in a storyline. The traditional empathy map consists of four quadrants, each to capture respectively what a user says, thinks, does, and feels. For example, in the scenario where a user is using a grocery deliver)' service, the Says quadrant would be populated by what the user expresses out loud during an interview or usability testing session, like “I want to see my grocery options,” “I like the price comparison feature,” or “I don’t know how to pay with this.” The Thinks quadrant should contain intended as well as implicit expressions made by the user, such as “I believe every trip should be completed under an hour” or “I get annoyed when the deliverer picks up the wrong brand.” The Does quadrant documents the actions and behaviors of the user during their interaction with the product, e.g., the user goes to the cart page to see the total amount spent on their groceries, or the user couldn’t remove a selected item. Finally, the Feels quadrant encloses the user’s emotional

A simple empathy map for capturing human experience state throughout the session

FIGURE 3.3 A simple empathy map for capturing human experience state throughout the session. The content in the quadrant can overlap with the Thinks quadrant but focuses more on specific pains and gains, like confusion, satisfaction, anger, confidence, disappointment, etc.

Journey Mapping

Many designers confuse empathy mapping with journey mapping. While the former seeks to capture the user’s whole internal experience in a given scenario, the latter concentrates on the external flow during an interactive process, hence journey mapping. The main purpose of journey mapping is to visualize a user’s step-by-step travel through a scenario (like ordering an Uber ride), and capture the key stages of the process (e.g., setting up an account, entering payment information, entering a destination, choosing ride options, waiting for a ride, getting into a ride, interacting with the driver, arriving at the destination, rating the ride). Across these stages, designers would imagine potential high (happy) and low (dissatisfied) points so they can create interventions to help mitigate negative experiences and enhance positive ones.


A word-play on “brainstorming,” bodystorming is a physical activity where participants perform instructed actions using mock or actual products. This exercise aims to simulate scenarios as close to the reality experienced by users as possible. For instance, it’s been reported by Apple Inc employees that when Steve Jobs was in the design phase of the revolutionary iPhone, he had several employees carry a wood block in their pocket and pretend to use it to make calls or text messages. This way, Jobs was able to observe user behaviors in a more natural state (albeit still within the workplace) and identify problems the users might face with his design. This method requires careful planning to create a real-life environment for participants to interact with a product. The results from this kind of study can be rich and insightful as it involves their full, embodied experiences.

These empathy-building exercises are just the starting point. User advocacy through design thinking requires the cultivation of a mindset that always pays attention to the power dynamic between users and designed products. Throughout the design process, empathy should continually guide technical communicators in recognizing the contested sites of power and control, and how these tensions may result in frustrations between colleagues with different agendas and ultimately affect the users and their experience.

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