Empathy to Prevent Coercive Design

I’ve worried about empathy-as-a-buzzword. I’ve worried it would be repeated until it made us cynical, and I’ve worried that the people in our organizations who are responsible for making sure our initiatives translate into dollar signs would not understand why we go on about it so much.

I’ve said in the past that empathy helps us prioritize and it helps us make the details of a design go from good to great. But now I think — I hope — it can do a lot more than that.

What is the function of empathy in humans? It motivates us to take care of each other. It teaches us to cause less harm. It sparks altruism.

More and more people talk about how corporations take more than they leave. It’s become more mainstream to characterize corporations as psychopathic entities that grow their influence and wealth at the expense of democracy and sustainability.

So, can an empathy practice — user-centered design — teach our companies to put the well being of our users first? Or, at least far enough ahead of pure self interest to keep us from careening into oblivion?

Can empathy convince a company with tens of thousands of employees and hundreds of thousands of shareholders to design a culture, a product, a marketing campaign that does not trick or coerce its customers into giving what they don’t have in order to get what they don’t need?

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