Why empathy matters: one unforgettable year in Healthcare UX

When tragedy accidentally gave me insight into my users

Kai Wong
10 min readSep 12, 2019


Photo by Dominik Lange on Unsplash

Empathy for design purposes seems like it’s the next (dying) buzzword.

It’s impossible, according to Don Norman.

It’s a talking point with no action behind it.

Perhaps as a result of overuse, when most designers talk about empathy, they don’t seem to be referring to fact-gathering, but something more like feeling-broadcasting

But I think it’s still useful. Empathy was key in making me, a UX designer who thought they knew everything, into a better designer.

What is empathy in design

The textbook definition of empathy according to IDEO’s Human-centred Design toolkit is that:

Empathy is a “deep understanding of the problems and realities of the people you are designing for”.

At it’s best, it is a deep understanding for a user base that may be misunderstood, such as Patricia Moore’s study into the elderly.

At it’s worst? Well, it’s a buzzword.

But I had a great non-design mentor, who taught me what empathy actually meant within the domain of healthcare. I eventually took her message to heart, and it’s been instrumental in developing as a designer.

But it took a tragedy for me to see it.

To show how this happened, I’ll take my mentor’s other piece of advice and start at the beginning.

My unique background

My family works in the ugly side of healthcare, the kind where people don’t come back. I’ve caught glimpses of devastation from cancer diagnoses when my parents had to work. I’ve seen more than enough pained smiles of nice people going in for treatment and never leaving.

As a child, I was fascinated and horrified by it all. I knew that I’d never be comfortable enough with it to be a doctor, but I wanted to improve the experiences of patients somehow.

When I was older, I searched for a way to improve healthcare from a different angle, and when I found UX I was ecstatic.



Kai Wong

7xTop writer in UX Design. UX, Data Viz, and Data. Author of Data-Informed UX Design: https://tinyurl.com/2p83hkav. Substack: https://dataanddesign.substack.com