A Bit Misguided

An exploration of design empathy and its shortcomings.

Since the 1990’s design empathy has been widely accepted as a best practice when solving complex problems, but still empathy and design thinking can seem like a dark art to a lot of folks. It’s not. Adjust the way we approach design-fueled problem solving and it becomes much more accessible and sustainable. Let’s look at where design thinking has been stuck for a long time.

As described by IDEO, design thinking is an approach that draws upon people’s real-world experiences to address modern challenges by way of empathy. When companies allow for a deep emotional understanding of people’s needs to inspire them — and transform their work, their teams, and even their organization at large — they unlock the creative capacity for innovation.

While I generally agree that empathetic design allows for more innovative and sustainable solutions to a wide variety of complex problems, I’d argue that it does not allow for the most innovative and sustainable approaches to the complexities of the modern world. My two cents: compassion, not empathy is the magic.

Compassion sounds more touchy-feely than empathy, but ask yourself: Do you really know the difference?

Empathy allows us to walk in someone else’s shoes so to speak. With empathy we can recognize and feel others’ problems, emotions, etc. Compassion represents one key difference. Compassion is an emotional state in which we are compelled to help the person in need. Simply put, compassion is positively action oriented whereas empathy can produce a multitude of behaviors…inherently lacking consistency.

In a recent scientific study at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany, Olga Klimecki (lead researcher) found that deep empathy could foster an “emotional burnout.” Essentially too much empathy causes our negative emotions to increase, thus creating a more stressful situation that does not warrant positive action…empathy overload.

What if compassion-fueled design and leadership creates the most incredible innovations and disruptions of our lives?

As designers and leaders of change in an increasingly innovative world, we have to push ourselves to move from great to incredible. We cannot afford to lack consistency. Of course we have seen and always will see examples of great leadership, products, innovation, UX, etc. However, the million-dollar question is whether or not these things happen by accident or purposefully on a consistent basis? To boot, I ask if we are enabling the most people possible to have the capacity to disrupt the status quo? Due to the fact that generally empathy is promoted as best practice for design thinking, we’ve left many people who want to solve problems by design stuck in empathy quick-sand so to speak.

Striving to lead and design from a place of compassion allows for even more incredible customer experiences that are more consistent and sustainable because compassion allows for more co-creation and less reliance on simply the designers own ability to move past empathy and create a solution. Compassion opens up conversations, collaboration and creativity whereas empathy runs the high risk of hanging out in a state of simple observation.

Not buying it? Here’s another way of looking at compassion versus empathy.

It is quite simple actually. When you reflect on our typical use of the word compassion we use phrasing such as “showing compassion.” Compare that to our typical phrasing of “feeling empathetic.” See the difference? Action. Oriented.

Of course we want to first experience empathy because this allows us to feel what others are feeling and then we can identify that emotion or problem. We must then move quickly into a place of compassion in order to respond appropriately and deepen our research and data. If we simply remain in the empathy zone our judgment and clarity can get clouded far more easily then if we are designing and leading from a place of compassion. Mirroring ones problem (an empathetic approach) walks a fine line of being unproductive.

Even IDEO believes that ‘once empathy is achieved, it needs to be moderated: ‘apply too much and our thinking loses focus; apply too little and the depth of our insight suffers.’ How do we moderate empathy? Compassion. Empathy is incredibly useful in understanding how things work and how people experience things, but compassion allows us to unlock the even more critical question of ‘why.’ Understanding the ‘why’ of problems fosters incredible ideas on a more consistent basis and by design not by accident.

So, where does this fit in from a business stand point? Undoubtedly, solving complex business problems from design thinking standpoint (the expansion of ideas versus the breaking down of ideas) gives way to incredible disruption in the marketplace. Just look at the run on design firms by major companies (Accenture, Saleforce and McKinsey to name a few). It simply works. But, how do we reach a greater level of disruption and innovation? See above. Compassion is the answer, or at least the best answer I have to date.

As a business, your success relies heavily on the people who bring their ideas, ambition and wits to deliver incredible customer experiences every day. As leaders we should have a cultural obsession with people and customer centricity, both of which are unlocked by the power of compassion in your team, division and organization.

Simply said, if you want to be more disruptive and solve the “unsolvable” problems of the world, you must carefully design a culture that lives and breathes compassionate design…all of which stems from your leadership competencies. But, we’ll get to that another day.

Empathy can be an addictive drug, and as with any addictive drug…just say “no.”