Bringing Empathy into Software Development

Empathy is an important yet often overlooked quality in software development. It can mean improved productivity and ultimately, greater innovation.
July 28, 2022
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Sixty-one percent of people with highly empathetic leadership say they are frequently or always innovative at work, research from Catalyst finds. On the other hand, just 13% of people with less empathetic senior leaders say the same.

Software development is often regarded as a solitary, highly analytical, and technical process. And too often, a very important quality is missing: empathy. But this is crucial for development and overall business success.

Increasingly, the software development community is recognizing the importance of empathy, so much so that it has coined a term for bringing this so-called soft skill into the process: Empathy-Driven Development, or EmDD. Today, an increasing number of organizations that focus on building software have recentered their cultures around this practice. 

Is empathy as important as — or possibly even more important than — technical skills? How can you incorporate it into your software development process?

5 Benefits of Empathy-Driven Development

1. Better Understanding of Users

Empathy is about feeling what others are feeling. By approaching development with this mindset, you will be better equipped to see the product from the perspective of the user — which, in turn, will make your software more user-friendly.

2. Less Bias

Bias can seem unavoidable. Software is built by people, and people bring their own prejudices and beliefs into the process, even one as technical as this. However, an empathetic attitude can allow engineers to consider multiple angles and ward off biased ideas, enabling them to incorporate understanding.

3. Improved Problem-Solving

Too often, when things go wrong — which, let’s face it, is fairly common in the software development process — team members get stuck. An unfortunate side effect of this is blame — people who are supposed to be working together blaming each other. This is a recipe for disaster.

Empathy, however, lays the groundwork for more productivity in the development space. Instead of blaming one another, developers will be primed to work together to solve problems.

4. Better Team Dynamics

This, in turn, leads to better team dynamics overall. You are setting the stage for a more collegial environment, one with superior communication and collaboration. This, of course, will mean stronger bonds — a critical part of the software development process.

5. Greater Innovation

An empathetic environment is one that nurtures creativity. Developers are more driven and feel supported. They have the space to experiment and innovate without blame for making mistakes and with the knowledge that their leaders will encourage them. This, in turn, leads to an increase in creativity, which is necessary for producing that spark that is the difference between good software and great software.

How to Implement EmDD

1. Embed Empathy in the Culture

Empathy starts at the top — with leadership. Leaders need to build an empathetic culture, and they can do so by employing an understanding, unbiased approach to hiring, nurturing and supporting employees, and encouraging collaboration and communication. They should make developers aware of the many benefits of EmDD and offer guidelines for putting it into practice, as well as emphasize diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Leaders must also avoid being too hard on employees who make mistakes. Instead, they should use them as learning opportunities, as well as give them the space to experiment and fail without consequence.

2. Study Others’ Code

Professional developers can learn a lot from colleagues. By studying other developers’ code, they can gain insight into diverse mindsets and perspectives. Not only will this lead to building better code, but it will also change the developer’s approach. It means using evidence to construct an alternative viewpoint, one distinct from yours. And isn’t this what an empathetic mindset and process are all about?

By looking into the code that other developers have created, you are thinking from their perspective, allowing yourself to consider different angles and thoughts.

3. Put Yourself Into the Users’ Shoes

At the heart of your code is the user. Even if you’re not a UX designer, you must always approach your project with the user in mind — this is the person behind the product, the one who will be experiencing it. But without empathy, you simply won’t be equipped to fully put yourself in the user’s shoes.

You must be able to, well, empathize with them, understand their needs and wants. So, when you’re approaching the project, examine it through their lens. What do they need your software to do? What issues will it resolve for them? Why would they choose it over another product? Try to connect with them, creating user personas to create an image of who these people are, contextualizing their experiences. 

4. Get to Know Colleagues

Teamwork and support are the backbone of software development. In order to better understand your team members and their approaches, take the time to get to know them. This will allow you to work together better. 

Truly listen to them. Respond to their questions thoughtfully. Accept their feedback and constructive criticism graciously. Don’t act like the hero of the team — remember that everyone is bringing their own talents and skills to the project, and when you collaborate effectively, you will create a quality product together. Recognize that your successes and failures are shared. 

Empathy may not necessarily be something you commonly associate with software development, but it is critical to the process nonetheless. It means assuming different perspectives, understanding others’ challenges and responsibilities, and valuing users and team members alike. It also means having the ability to navigate complex obstacles and situations — something that is critical when you’re performing such intricate work.

Ultimately, when you follow an empathetic approach to software development, you will inevitably create better projects — and be a better tech leader and professional.

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