Different Forms of Empathy

"Empathy" is a complex, multifaceted concept that can often be applied in a reductive way, especially in the world of design and UX.

Haag and Marsden identify two forms of empathy:

  1. Cognitive empathy: understanding a user's material and functional needs
  2. Affective empathy: understanding the user's feelings and seeing the world from their perspective

Haag and Marsden's study of approximately 50 IT design students suggested that cognitive empathy was far easier to achieve than affective empathy.

Whereas in a design context, empathy is described almost as a practice or behaviour, Christian Madsjberg observes that some forms of empathy are innate. However, establishing empathy for an outside group may take considerable effort.

Madsbjerg describes three forms of empathy:

  1. Unconscious empathy, whereby we adjust to one another's presence and become enmeshed in a shared context
  2. Observational empathy, in which we observe something out of the ordinary, such as a friend exhibiting an unexpected behaviour or affect
  3. Analytical empathy, the effortful work of building an understanding of how another person or group sees the world through the process of sensemaking



Haag, Maren, and Nicola Marsden. “Exploring Personas as a Method to Foster Empathy in Student IT Design Teams.” International Journal of Technology and Design Education, April 24, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10798-018-9452-5.

Madsbjerg, Christian. Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm. Hachette Books, 2017.