Empathy and Design: A Roadmap

Knowing why you do good can help you do more good

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy, and not just in the context of design — though there, too. In the UX field, “designing for empathy” is a hot topic of slide decks, conference talks, articles, seminars, and all for the good and nobly conceived. And let me be clear: I’m for it. It’s one of the things that attracted me to make a second career in UX.

But are we in danger of this merely becoming a buzzword, an item on a checklist, a marketing talking point, the way “elegant” or “user-friendly” or “innovative” have become? Just as UX isn’t an ingredient you can just add to a product to make it usable, empathy isn’t a reified thing you can add a cup or teaspoon of, or a filter you can insert in a process. (Likewise, good design doesn’t impose empathy as the end goal; better to use it as a path to uncover the real problem for users which might be, say, bad air conditioning.) If I sound tired, it’s because I’ve seen it before: we in the UX field demonstrate the value of a process, then see its name only being commodified with minimal interest in its real content. The old saying is that if you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made; if we’re not watchful, our advocating for empathy might tempt the “build fast” tech world to co-opt the language of empathy without the actual, you know, empathy.

It’s not just a design issue. This is the week Americans waddle on from Thanksgiving, a holiday that’s both about empathy (family) while glossing over it (colonialism), and begin to plow into a “season of giving” that opens with murderous grabfests on Black Friday. This is also yet another week where social media have reminded us, this week of Ferguson (again), that many otherwise normal people in our world are heavily invested in not dedicating one neuron to empathy.

Towards this, I’ll outline some of the formative experiences that exposed me to thinking in an empathetic way, and how I try to integrate these into my work. I’m not claiming I’m always — or ever — the most empathetic person, but if I can learn from this, maybe you can, too.

Interlude: Empathy in Design is a Thing

First, I should give a quick overview of what the talk on empathy in design is about. This is both to introduce the topic to those not already in the UX field, and to acknowledge the great work that is out there.

Brené Brown calls empathy “feeling with people” (emphasis in the original). You can think of it as reaching some sort of unity with another person, though not being overwhelmed to the point of losing any distinction of identity; Seung Chan Lim’s “What is Empathy?” article and talk covers this in depth.

Kim Goodwin has said that a good design, whether it be for an app, a web site, or an experience such as purchasing a new TV, is designing while asking, “What would a thoughtful human do?” Think of a good interaction you’ve had, then a bad one. Maybe it’s an automated voice response system, maybe it’s your health insurance provider, maybe it’s an app, maybe it’s a grocery store. Can you see how that criterion holds, and when it works, creates a better experience?

Now, what enables a designers to build something that works with you, the way a thoughtful human would? Putting aside the inside-baseball talk of tools, or methodologies, or processes, what enables a designer is both simpler and more complex. Think of Whitney Hess’s maxim: “The best user experience designers practice UX because they love getting to know people on a very personal level.” Good design is about getting to know someone (or a lot of someones). It doesn’t come from building a vision, or running the numbers the way they did in B School, or analyzing server logs and clickthroughs (sorry, Google): humans are muddles of motivations, contradictory needs, arbitrary connections, and all those will determine whether our design, our product, our interaction, works for them or not.

Jon Kolko, the author of the fantastic Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving, recently published Well Designed: How to Use Empathy to Create Products People Love. He brings strong grounding to the argument that design is about getting to learn who people are, learning what signals they send and what those mean. This is what makes a product, an app, or a store work.

Doing the design research, especially when creating something interactive, is messy and potentially contradictory work, but a good designer knows how to do it. A good designer will have the tools of ethnography, anthropology, qualitative sociology, cultural observation. Spending the small amount of time and money and attention has been shown over and over again to return real value and correlates strongly to startup success. (Most startups overlook this. Most startups fail. I’m not sure why that last fact popped into my head just then.)

We have to realize that other people are ends in themselves, not only a means for us to deliver content or goods. It’s not just Kant, it’s a good idea, and one with practical payoff. Think of it this way: if we never bother to understand the first step towards empathy — that people are actual people and are themselves — our product’s relationship with people will be a contentious one. Even if it works, which is sometimes will, it will always be a hard sell.

“Those toys aren’t for you.”

It’s tough to say exactly at what age humans begin to develop a capacity for empathy. Some toddlers move to comfort crying babies, but most research suggests that we don’t build a theory of mind (that is, the understanding that others may think differently and separately than we do) until around the age of four. I’m assuming everyone reading this is at least old enough to tie their own shoes, so that prereq should be covered.

But biology is not destiny. Even though a toddler’s brain may be able to recognize others as others, some people never quite develop this as a habit or realize it’s a good thing to do as default. Public service message: Don’t be a sociopath. Granted, this is a low bar, but if internet comments and tweets teach us anything, it’s that this message can stand repeating.

Knowing my family, I’m sure I was raised with constant reminders to be nice and to care for others, but one distinct experience to this day drives some of my thinking on empathy.

When I was somewhere around six or seven, I really wanted a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang car. I don’t know why, I just know it was a consuming want. But for some reason, my parents wouldn’t buy me one, even though I could see our local toy store still had some right there — there! — up on the shelves. Drove me nuts with desire.

Then one day, my mom came home from errands with a big shopping bag that had, right on top, a brand-new-in-packaging, shiny Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I was over the moon. As soon as she went into another room I tore open the plastic packaging, gawked in awe, then I remembered my manners and ran to my mom, clung to her, and babbled over and over again that I loved her. The transactional nature of this mania is, in retrospect, mortifying.

My mother asked me, in a voice more patient than my actions warranted, what this was all about. I dragged her back to where I’d torn open the package that I’d taken as a demonstration of her love for me. Of course it was meant for me. Why wouldn’t it be?

She stopped dead, her face still. “Those toys,” she began, slowly. “Those toys were for children who don’t have anyone to give them toys.” She looked sad.

This was the first time I learned that the world wasn’t there just for me. It wasn’t there to serve me or to give me whatever I wanted. This taught me, in a concrete way, that other people have their own needs and these may be just as valid as your own.

I’d like to say that from then on, I was always considerate towards others and thought of why the bully shoved me — perhaps acting out his sadness at his home life — but nah. I was still an average kid. Perhaps a bit less greedy. But this is where I found my own first step towards empathy.

This awareness of other people as people is a necessary quality for empathy, in life and in design, but it is not sufficient.

If you’re building a store you want people to visit, or an app you want people to buy, you have to be acutely aware that not one of those people is you. Give up the thought that “I want it” will mean anyone else will want it; you have to be willing to observe and get to know others because they very value is that they are other.

If you’re a designer, observe real people in real situations; if you’re a founder, trust the people who do that. Hear how it changed their product thinking and solved real problems for those real people, who are more likely to become your customers. Of course you are a real person, too — but isn’t it better to learn about others? After all, they outnumber you.

Barkham Street

A few years later I read some books. I mean, in general I was a bookworm, but these two were what made me take the next big step in empathy. (Note: I was surprised to find that these seem out of print. Perhaps it’s an echo of the childhood assumption of permanence.)

Mary Stolz’s “A Dog on Barkham Street” was a YA novel about a small-for-his-age kid who was bullied by the bruiser down the street. I can’t imagine why that spoke to me. The bully was an implacable and opaque force in the protagonist’s life and of course we knew he was just plain a bad person whom the world would be better without.

Mary Stolz’s “The Bully of Barkam Street” was a YA novel about a big kid with a weight problem who felt ignored by his father, stressed by his mother, and tortured by his sister. Some kids on his street seemed to have perfect home lives and this drove him to fury, and he would lash out to try to gain some sense of control over his life.

You’re smart; you got it. Same characters, same street, two different points of view. At that age, who knows about unreliable narrators? Children hear a fairly tale and see themselves as the prince or princess. We believe what we’re shown. Trying to reconciled these two radically divergent narratives did crazy things to my head. Could both stories be true? Maybe… maybe people weren’t always just what we thought they were.

It was the mental and emotional equivalent of the first time you stare at a Rubin vase. As your brain flips between seeing a vase and two faces in profile, my brain kept flipping between what seemed to be two incompatible truths in the two stories. But then a switch flipped. You are always the hero of your own story; nobody sees themselves as the evil antagonist.

Again, I suppose this is nothing new. Walk a mile in someone’s shoes, read the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, that sort of thing. But it was my first exposure, and it brought me to the previously hidden logical connection, previously obscured, that other people may see themselves, the world, and me differently than I do. I still think that’s a good conclusion (I’m aware you may think otherwise).

So empathy is based on the rock of recognizing other people actually exist. The frame rising up from that is the awareness that these other people have other thoughts, needs, and feelings — and your willingness to discover this, perhaps at the small cost of revising your thoughts, needs, and feelings. Granted, what I just described is sometimes also called “living in civilization”.

However, this is sometimes a tough sell for a designer. The business world often promotes the view that vision and confidence are prime above all, and MBAs (or engineers) often think that anything you can’t quantify isn’t worth studying. Sometimes you run into founders or bosses who insist that their vision is the alpha and omega of what they want to make, as long as you add the “elegant”. Learning about and understanding others, to their thinking, could only delay or dilute what they want. We’ll put aside that user research can be done rapidly and cheaply; the facts indicate that not taking the steps to understand users as people who are not you, and how they see themselves and what their needs and wants are, is the least likely success path to take.

Think back to Barkham Street. If you are invested in seeing the bully as nothing but the bully, you’ll never learn what makes him act out and he’ll never be anything but the bully. Learn how the bully sees himself, what drives him, and you might be able to get him to stop. Find his needs and meet them, and he might become something else. A user who clicks through, even.


I’m far from a groundbreaker on this topic. There’s a lot of excellent discussion published on empathy and design, with tons of practical thoughts on techniques, processes, language, and application. All excellent stuff. But what I hope to add is that I’ve found both practical value and a renewed drive for my work by going back and seeing what has been the building blocks of empathy, as I understand it.

These lodestone memories help me stay on course. We can get so wrapped up in the work that looms before us and deadlines and our own hopes that we need reminders of why we’re doing the work. Open-ended questions, observations, listening, are all vital tools in our work, but hard to keep up if we’re not genuinely curious about others — especially so when your research may be revealing things that contradict your assumptions. But that’s exactly when it’s most crucial to listen and to empathize. You’re not creating more work for yourself, but getting to what your work should be.

As Julie Zhuo, product design director at Facebook, wrote, “Great experiences doesn’t just happen by happenstance. The best designers and product thinkers know people.” And these best designers begin to know other people by first recognizing them as such. I know my practice has improved by retracing my own path to empathy. Perhaps yours might, too.