There is a LOT of insight in D Keith Robinson’s writing about empathy. I would like to add to what he wrote. Empathy can be defined in a number of different ways, but it boils down to our understanding of the world and another person from his or her perspective. This can be our “ability” or “capacity” to understand, or the “experience” of understanding (at least according to the different definitions pulled up by the first page of a Google search).
I’ll argue that empathy, especially for designers and certain professions, shouldn’t be viewed as an innate capacity, intuition, personality trait, experience, or any other noun. I advocate for understanding and practicing empathy as a verb, something we do.
I should note here that I’m not a designer, although I’ve been studying Design Thinking and related processes, and applying them to innovation in my field of conflict engagement (aka conflict resolution or alternative dispute resolution). For me, discovering Design Thinking gave me the same ah-ha, found-nirvana moment as when I first trained in mediation.
Anyway, I think empathy is best discussed as something we do. We can view the practice of empathy as a pair of E(mpathy)-Glasses (maybe I should trademark that…) that we put on with the purpose of understanding the world and feeling the life of the person from the perspective of our subject/client/friend/coworker. The tricky part, of course, is that we can never fully understand their perspective, but with hard work, practice, intention, and the gift of a person willing to help us understand, we can get a better understanding.
Through practicing empathy, we can not only better understand the perspective of individuals. We can also look at that rich data that we capture and discover patterns of experience. In my prior life as a sociologist, I had the privilege of designing and executing a study that involved qualitative interviews of Alaskan fur trappers. The amazing amount of rich qualitative data and the patterns pulled from that data allowed the National Park Service to create sound policy decisions in Denali Park and Preserve. In other words, the NPS created a great product that allowed for the folks living in that area to have better experiences and lives.
By practicing empathy actively and intentionally, with the help and validation of your partners-in-understanding (those for whom you are designing), the patterns of experience pulled from the resulting rich data will make it possible to design amazing products, services, and experiences. That’s pretty awesome.