Empathy in Design

A lesson from traveling the world

Traveling has been one of the greatest educators in my life and has schooled me in more ways than a backpack full of textbooks ever could.

Over the past few years, I’ve been fortunate enough to travel through over 15 countries, having a glimpse of everything from remote villages in Morocco to bustling cities across China.

Through these handful of experiences abroad, I’ve taken away incredible experiences and cultivated some lifelong lessons. But perhaps the single most valuable lesson of them all, through meeting people from all corners of the world:

The capacity for empathy — putting yourself in other’s shoes.

Through experiences both while at home and abroad, I’ve learned that getting to know my neighboring world citizen can significantly change the way I see the world. I’ve had engaging conversations with taxi drivers in Istanbul and lively arguments with local politicians in Beijing. More often than not, their views, ideas, and lifestyles clash fiercely with my own.

However, interacting with and even befriending people oceans apart have shown me there really is no right way or wrong way, there are simply different ways. I have two choices: dismiss these people as “wrong,” or try and actively understand their point of view and develop empathy as to why they do what they do.

Like traveling, I believe design should begin with learning to empathize with other people. To really understand their story — to see the world from their point of view — is in my opinion, the single, most precious skill for a designer to learn and utilize.

Empathy does not grant a magical power to read everyone’s mind or predict what everyone will do.

But what empathy does though: it allows us to understand the situations, feelings, abilities, and motivations of people. To go beyond the design details and mock-ups and style guides, and focus on newer, more relevant challenges.

Empathy allows us to step back and see the bigger picture.

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” — Marcel Proust

Before I set out traveling a few years ago, understanding and identifying with other people was something I neglected. Through traveling I have not only learned the power of empathy, but back home day-to-day, I’m practicing this skill with every person I meet.

Whether in a conversation with a taxi driver in Istanbul, or interviewing a user of your product, there is always something to be learned through having new eyes.

Tweet me at @_chrisachan if you have any thoughts or comments!