Know Thy User — Empathizing with users (without access to them) in 2021

Empathize with users in 2021

As Sun Tzu said in his book The Art of War, “Know thyself, know thy enemy, a thousand battles, a thousand victories.”

Although we’re not at war the concept of war can be applied to UX. How? That’s simple, divide your task in such a way that the more you know about your users the higher chances you have of building meaningful experiences.

But often we don’t have access to our users, what do we do then?

Well if you’re in a situation like that, not to worry my friend, I’m here to guide you on how to do just that.

Step 1: Define what you’re hoping to learn clearly!

“I want to know what my users think.”

That’s a very vague research objective. What exactly do you want to know about them? What time do they go to the bathroom? When do they have breakfast? My guess is you probably wouldn’t want to know either of those things. So ask yourself what EXACTLY do you want to know about your users.

Setting the right objective before empathizing with users is critical to arriving at the right destination. Think of it like this, your objective is the road you take to reach your desired insights.

So if you take the wrong road, you’ll likely end up at the non-useful insights. They’ll still be insights, just not the ones you wanted.

This leads me to a complication you might face, “what if I don’t know what my objective is?

That’s simple. Start with the broad problem and keep asking questions till you arrive at a specific one. Then set that specific problem as an objective.

Here’s an example:

Broad Problem:

“My users aren’t buying my product”

  • Why? They add items to their cart but don’t make the final purchase.
  • Why? Because they get frustrated at the checkout.
  • Why? Most users leave just before clicking “Submit Order”

Specific problem:
“Users abandoning their carts at the last step of the checkout process.”

Research objective:
“Why are users abandoning their carts at the last step of the checkout process?”

Step 2: Start empathizing with your users!

Before we talk about each step individually here’s how the process works:

User Empathy framework — UX research


Write down everything you know about the users. This includes their personal details like age, sex, profession, location, and all the way to studying their behaviors through their online presence,

Here are some questions you can ask:

  • Can you access some profiles?
  • How do they communicate?
  • What are their values?
  • What do they like?
  • What are they complaining about?
  • What are their hobbies?
  • And their favorite products?


Live like the user. This one’s a little difficult to manage, but when you get the hang of it, can be a very powerful tool. Immerse yourself in the type of life they live by viewing the type of content they watch, performing activities they do, and more.

Note: Please don’t lose your own self in trying to live like the user.

Try to imagine you are the user and do everything in accordance with that. And I mean EVERYTHING.


Go beyond just their social platforms. When you experience the things they experience like values, history, religion, culture, behaviors, likes, and dislikes, you’ll begin to think more and more like them.

This connection is key in creating a bridge of understanding between you and your users.


Once you’ve experienced life as the user, it’s time to leave those experiences and come back to your reality of what you perceive life to be.

Here you’ll step back into the role of the super awesome UX designer that you are and begin generating ideas on what problems the user could face, and their possible solutions.

Step 3: Make Assumptions (what how why method)!

Based on your own experiences of what the user might feel, start making hypotheses. These hypotheses are going to be based on assumptions you make. At the same time, it’s important that you question your own assumptions.

So while the hypotheses are based on assumptions, they have to be as clear from your personal bias as possible.

Empathizing without access to real users is tough, so a little back and forth is natural. Here’s a quick example of how the What How Why method works.

  • What is the assumption: The users get confused about which button to press when they arrive at the checkout screen.
  • How is your assumption happening: Show the rationale behind your assumption. This includes both internal and external factors that contribute to the user getting confused at the checkout.
  • Why is your assumption happening: Users feel confused when they arrive at the checkout screen because the screen offers a lot of choices to the users, which makes them confused about where should they go.

And once you’re done with that give yourself a high five on a job well done. You deserve it!

Thanks for sticking around till the end and good luck with your UX Journey!

If you love to talk about anything design-related hit me up on Linkedin here.

Or just send me an email here.


María Donaire Varo Visual Designer | Digital Product Design



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