How much empathy do I need as a designer?

Let’s take three personas.

First, there is James. He finds it very difficult to think or respect the opinions of others, including his “users”. He is technically minded, and he knows how things work. He is impatient when potential service users come along and ask for the service to “be a bit more…” or “can we change that part…”. His response to this kind of input is “this is how the system works” and “the users don’t understand”.

Second, there is Karen. She has been trained to use a toolkit of empathy — persona canvas, journey mapping, ethnographic style observations and face-to-face interviews. She knows how to embed empathy into the design process and she finds learning about users really interesting. But empathy has its place for her.

Third, there is Rachel. She really cares. She endlessly reflects and internalises the world of others (or at least her imaginations and projections of them) into her design work. She immerses herself in the lives of others, asking endless questions, following them around and thinking about what life must be like for them. If someone she is talking to gets upset she will worry for days about what happened and her role evoking these emotions.

Now which of these designers gets empathy right? Which one would you choose for your team?

If you are a “human-centred designer” you have probably gone for Karen. She is able to imagine the lives of other people, but doesn’t allow this to overburden her. It seems, from the simplistic personas I have presented, that James cannot (and does not wish to) understand the user, and is in danger of misunderstanding what they need and want. Equally, Rachel is so overcome by the intensity of other people’s lives she is in danger of being distracted by sympathy and her own projections of what others actually need.

But if you have selected Karen you might need to re-examine your own approach to empathy.

One of the essential qualities of experiencing empathy — that is, experiencing what other people think and feel — is not offering your own judgement or bias into the understanding of how other people live. We might be tempted to call empathy a competence or skill, but that does not mean there is a right way to empathise. This might sound contradictory, but it is an important discipline to take empathy seriously.

Psychologists, such as Simon Baron-Cohen at the University of Cambridge, tell us that people experience empathy, both in its cognitive and emotional dimensions, along a spectrum. You might experience cognitive empathy more deeply than I do (and vice versa). And a few people do not experience one or both of the dimensions at all.

But rather than suggesting that one person has empathy right and another person has it wrong, one important task for designers is to expect and appreciate that empathy is different for everyone. How you experience a small child crying will be different to how I experience it. There is no right way to experience, any more than there is a right way to cry or not to cry. In terms of individual differences, we have come to accept this idea in terms of “personality” or “intelligence”, that it is unhelpful to think that being located in one point of the scale is inherently better than another point.

My perspective on this is the same response as to other social dynamics. Allow diversity of experiences and perspectives into the space.

This has important implications for the mapping of empathy. If in your team someone is known as being really good to empathy maps, what does this actually mean? Does this mean that they are quick at describing what others might be thinking?

In our personas above, James might often resist listening to the opinion of others, but this might be a powerful insight in itself. What does this experience mean for service delivery? How widespread is this experience in your team or in the user community? How does this influence the social interactions between people? How does this impact on the design itself?

Does this mean we should train designers to be more empathic? It probably means that “training” is the wrong way to think about it. Instead, we should encourage empathy to become an important part of the design conversation and encourage designers of all kinds to reflect on the meaning of empathy for their own lives. This needs to be a thoughtful and patient conversation — empathy cannot be rushed.

I think you can be a great designer whether you experience high or low levels of empathy, the crucial thing is that diversity of empathic experiences becomes part of the design conversation.