A Case for Empathy

Those not given to brevity are provided with this detailed definition of “empathy” by Merriam-Webster: “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner”. A more simple way to look at it, though, is as the ability to understand and share another’s feelings. The latter take is more basic in that there are far fewer words to sum up the concept but is more complex simply by including the word “share”. And this inclusion also makes it more resonant in viewing the importance of empathy in our work in the field of design research.

The issue of empathy can be a divisive one. There are plenty of people who firmly believe that one must remain as emotionally removed from their work as possible in order to maintain a sense of objectivity. The thinking behind this being that one’s judgement can become clouded if they become invested in a person or place, which in turn could lead to decisions or actions that are ultimately more harmful than beneficial. This is particularly poignant in fields such as healthcare, journalism, and even development; in order to do what is “right” an individual must maintain a sense of separation from the work they are doing. In our work, the opposite is often true even, if not especially, when working in these same sectors.

We do not work solely on the periphery, studying people and situations from afar and noting observations in cool and calculated ways. We certainly do employ manifold observational techniques, but the crux of our activities lie in engaging with people in their contexts to understand not just how they feel, but why. When investigating opportunities to innovate and improve, it is the ability to engage in a meaningful way with beneficiaries that leads to successful breakthroughs, and ones that have sustainable, long-term impact. This level of engagement and inclusion is vital to our practice, and the value that we offer clients, colleagues, and beneficiaries that we work with. Understanding the drivers behind behavior and perceptions leads to the “A-ha!” moments that allow us to move beyond insights and into action.

Empathy’s importance exceeds simply the power of a shared experience and the sense of community such instills in people, though this alone can be transformative: it provides context for challenges, along with the direction needed to address them in a meaningful manner. Empathy allows one to better frame issues and challenges relative to the daily reality of another. Adversities faced are therefore seen as an aspect of one’s experience and not the sum total; this is the critical distinction between “empathy” and “sympathy”.

The knee-jerk rationale against including end-users or beneficiaries in the design process is often the famous Henry Ford quote, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Built into this is the presumption, or even presupposition, that such an insight somehow lacks value; that understanding the fact that customers want an improvement upon an existing product or offering does not provide any useful, actionable direction; that innovation in a vacuum equals genius, whereas innovation through collaboration or inclusion is somehow “less than”. Embedding oneself in the context you are seeking to drive innovation or change allows for a greater opportunity to glean insights to direct any product or service design process, while also allowing beneficiaries of those products or services to feel like they are stakeholders in what is being developed, because that is exactly what they are.

At Quicksand, our empathic approach manifests itself in numerous ways, but the crux of it is to put ourselves in another’s shoes, even literally at times. We seek to embed ourselves in the lives of the beneficiaries we’re working with to the greatest degree possible, up to and including staying with them in their homes, participating in their daily activities, and interacting with the artefacts that shape their experience in the world. In the absence of such efforts, the interventions and solutions we design to improve the lives of people in emerging markets would fall short. Given the gravity of some of the social issues we work on and are passionate about (e.g., water and sanitation, inclusion, education, etc.) it is imperative that our efforts lead to solutions that are both valued and sustainable.

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