The Ethics of User Experience Design: Discussed by the Terms of Apathy, Sympathy, and Empathy

Research output: Contribution to book/anthology/report/conference proceedingArticle in proceedingResearchpeer-review

1474 Downloads (Pure)


Design has in recent years been an increasing area in focus when developing digital interactive systems and services (Kolko 2010). Given the specific nature of material involved in designing digital media as ‘the material without qualities’ (Lowgreen & Stolterman 2007), and namely its total lack of boundaries, form, and infinite possibilities of content, the first aim of the designer is to create the boundaries by defining the design problem, give it form, and adjust it to fit the intended content. In doing so the designer aims at creating a certain ‘user experience’ for the person(s) who might intend to use the system. In this aim the designer implicitly commits to shape and form certain aspects of the experience for a group of human beings, and thereby also adopting the responsibility for these experiences, and their consequences.

To do so, the designer has to choose a framework, a model for the understanding, or simply a point of view. This article will look upon design as a responsibility posed to the designer by the intended user. The designer designs a solution to a specific problem a specific user has at a given time. The way the design is composed gives the user a restricted set of possible actions to experience the system, and thus deal with the problem. The way these actions are related to the way the user is viewed by the designer, will in this article be discussed with the term empathy as its fulcrum. Empathy has been heralded as the primary skill for the user-centered designer to ensure that the chosen point-of-view corresponds with the users, and thus ensures that the designed user experience actually is preferable for the user (Schauer & Merholz 2009).

However, there has been a lack of discussions surrounding the ethical dimension of creating and maintaining an empathic point-of-view on the users, and the responsibility the designer thus holds for the users experience with a given system. This article will define the empathetic dimensions of user experience design by discussing its counterparts: apathy and sympathy, and the difficulties of avoiding these points-of-views in the user-centered design process. Exemplifying the differences and ethical implications for the designer in the interaction with the user through the design of interactive digital systems.

Finally the article discusses the need to understand design as a development of empathy for a given user or group of users by giving a cased-based overview of how empathy can be achieved during the design process, and become the catalyst of a more ethical approach to designing the user experience of ICT.
Original languageDanish
Title of host publicationETHICOMP 2013 Conference Proceedings : The possibilities of ethical ICT
EditorsAnne Gerdes, Terrel Ward Bynum, William Fleishman, Simon Rogerson, Gitte Møldrup Nielsen
Number of pages8
Place of PublicationOdense
PublisherSyddansk Universitetsforlag
Publication date2013
ISBN (Print)978-87-92646-72-9
Publication statusPublished - 2013
EventETHICOMP 2013: The possibilities of ethical ICT - University of Southern Denmark, Kolding, Denmark
Duration: 12 Jun 201314 Jun 2013
Conference number: 13


ConferenceETHICOMP 2013
LocationUniversity of Southern Denmark


  • user experice
  • design
  • designer
  • ethics
  • empathy
  • apathy
  • sympathy
  • løgstrup
  • design thinking

Cite this