The dilemma of empathy in design

Richard Anderson
8 min readJul 12, 2017


Can you be or get too close to a situation or group of people to design effectively for it or them? Or is being fully in that situation or group of people beneficial, perhaps even essential?

Don Norman and Roberto Verganti are among those who have argued that “the more that design researchers immerse themselves in the existing context, the more they … are trapped within the current paradigms,” making it difficult to imagine, let alone design, a paradigm change when such might be needed.

Dan Saffer tells a relevant story:

About 10 years ago, I worked on a project for a new system for people with diabetes. We talked with many people who had diabetes or who helped educate diabetics. I even wore an insulin pump around for several days. In short, we were building up subject matter knowledge and empathy for the people we were designing for. During this user research phase many of us (myself included) started to have actual nightmares that we had diabetes. I remember once looking at my toes, wondering if the tingling I was feeling was the onset of diabetes. (It wasn’t — probably just my foot was asleep.) We’d empathized to the point where we really identified with diabetics and their problems, which are considerable. We had so much empathy for them, in fact, that for several weeks, we couldn’t solve the problem. It seemed intractable, given what we knew about the condition and the state of technology at the time.

But Emily Pilloton, in an article entitled, Depth Over Breadth: Designing For Impact Locally, and For The Long Haul, wrote:

For design within communities, we must genuinely identify with the community and consider ourselves part of it in order to produce solutions that are informed and long lasting in their impact. Through such empathy, our actions become inherently collective, making more permanent impact. This power of collective action was beautifully described in a 1994 white paper published by the South African Government’s Rural Development Program committee: “…The people must together shape their own future. Development is not about the delivery of goods to a passive citizenry. It is about active involvement and growing empowerment.”

I am entirely convinced that our greatest successes have and will come from work that is local, deeply entrenched, long-term, and in our own backyards. I firmly believe that lasting impact requires all three of the following: proximity (simply being there, in the place you seek to design with and for), empathic investment (a personal and emotional stake in collective prosperity), and pervasiveness (…involvement that has impact at multiple scales).

On what was this view based?

(After more than a year) bouncing between projects, constantly having to shift gears between cities, user groups, research sets, prototypes, and team dynamics… we began working closely with a single school district: the Bertie County Schools in Eastern North Carolina. Bertie County is the poorest county in the state, with close to 80 percent of its school district’s students living in poverty. Since the partnership’s start (a year ago, we) have spent nearly half our time in Bertie, building educational playgrounds, designing new computer labs, rewriting entire curricula, and implementing countywide education campaigns.

What we quickly discovered was that being there, as citizens, rather than just designers, was 80 percent of the battle. By becoming immersed in the community, cheering at high school basketball games, and weighing in at board meetings, we have earned the trust and partnership of the school district’s teachers, parents, and students, making our work more personal, appropriate, responsive, and meaningful. Gathering feedback from the community happens more smoothly, the ability to prototype and experiment with new ideas is more fluid, and a public understanding of our process has become more common. All the capacities required by the design process have become more natural through face-to-face engagement and open communication with the community, which of course, requires us to be there.

Where wide-scale endeavors fall flat is in their cursory understanding and lack of long-lasting commitment to the communities they serve. It is only by becoming a member of a community… that we can truly understand the issues and produce sustainable and effective solutions.

Jon Kolko addresses part of this when he states in, Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving, “It may take weeks of observation to become aware of the intricacies of tacit knowledge in other people, which a short-term project-based approach to design doesn’t provide.”

And contributing to this is, as George Aye stated recently, the role of an imbalance of power between designers — who, when they “work on complex social sector issues, …often enter situations with power inherently given to them (even if they don’t realize it)” — and the “communities being served”:

For all the talk about being human-centered, one very human factor often gets overlooked — a basic understanding of how power operates in relationships between people. This lack of understanding by design(ers) results in wasted funding, poorly prioritized projects, and broken promises to the very communities that are being served.

Chelsea Hostetter, in an article with the title that I stole for this post, reveals that already being a part of the community to be served isn’t enough:

Alex and I were embedded into the trans and queer community of Austin, and it’s really hard when you’re part of the LGBTQ community and also talking with members of that community about their needs to not feel like you want to take action right then and there. There were a lot of emotions I felt around the research that was just difficult to process as a queer person myself.

The Transgender Day of Remembrance is an event held for the community to remember the lives of the transgender victims of homicide with that year and to communally grieve. So throughout all of our interaction with the trans and queer community, the underlying ribbon we found is that somebody usually knows someone who has died whether through murder or through suicide. It’s tragic, and it’s awful, but that is the day to day of our community. As I was listening to the many names called out of lives lost that year, I started sobbing. Watching one person grieve is harrowing, but watching an entire community grieve, and feel connected to people you haven’t even met, is something that is completely, deeply, and soulfully impactful. At the time we dove really deep into the research but it struck a very deep, dear, personal chord with me. I previously considered myself a member of the queer community but through that research, I realized that I hadn’t been a good ally of the trans community like I previously thought. I didn’t have enough information or empathy to properly support our trans community then.

I don’t think that (the app we designed for the queer community when we were students at the Austin Center for Design) would have worked in the state it was in (then) because I wasn’t as embedded in the queer community as I am today. I am now a regular member of several queer community meet-ups and work with an internal group at frog that promotes diversity and inclusion. I realize in my specific case, in order to be helpful and beneficial and really design for that community, you have to be embedded in it. In my current position within the community, I feel far more able to help people.

The following recent tweet and the top of the article it points to is of relevance…

…as is April Starr’s tweet which she composed shortly after she and her husband endured a terribly designed process of rounds by doctors and residents during her husband’s hospital stay:

[See her “Free ideas from a human-centered designer for hospitals that want to be (or make it seem like they are) patient-centric” and her “MORE free ideas from a human-centered designer for hospitals” for more.]

I’ve been marginalized professionally and through a health crisis and a healthcare nightmare (and as a result, a long stretch of homelessness). Does this make me better suited to design for diversity and for healthcare (and for the homeless) than designers without that experience? I think so; in fact, I think it even makes me better suited to work on other social issues of great complexity. [But does this mean I wouldn’t need to further connect with people in non-diverse, the healthcare, or the homelessness ecosystems and engage in or otherwise tap (additional) design research when designing for diversity, for healthcare, and for the homeless? Not at all.]

If one hasn’t had such experiences, is one ill-suited to work on such issues? I don’t think so. As Tina Seelig writes, everyone experiences “challenging character building opportunities” during one’s life that facilitate one’s ability to develop empathy for those whose character building opportunities are more challenging. And by embedding oneself in the community to be served as much as possible, as described by Emily Pilloton and Dan Saffer and Chelsea Hostetter…

Is all of this only of relevance when addressing “wicked problems” (i.e., social issues of great complexity)?

And what of Don Norman and Roberto Verganti’s caution about becoming trapped by the current paradigms the more one immerses oneself within them? What can one do to not become trapped? Dan Saffer’s continuation of his story of developing too much empathy for diabetics:

It wasn’t until we were able to step away from the diabetics’ perspective and become less empathetic that we were able to come up with a product concept. We needed distance — a psychic removal — in order to really assess the problem and take action to change it. In other words, we had to act like designers, which meant we had to be more objective, to sit outside and to the left of the problem space. As this experience taught me, too much empathy can be as crippling as too little.

Empathy will get you to see the problems from the users’ perspective, but not the solutions.

Do you think Emily Pilloton and Chelsea Hostetter would agree? Would George Aye find this imbalance of power to be acceptable?

Questions, questions… (Indeed, I addressed the content of this blog post — and much more — during a session entitled, “Question Everything: Workshop to Help You More Effectively Design for Social Impact” which I led with Susan Wolfe last month during San Francisco Design Week. Should you be interested in such a workshop, give us a holler.)



Richard Anderson

A human-centered design practice, management, & organizational strategy leader/consultant/teacher/commentator, largely focused on social innovation.