Where does empathy begin and end for a designer?

Is you look at the popular design frameworks we all know, such as the Design Council’s double diamond or the d.school’s five hexagons, you could be forgiven for thinking that empathy is a stage of the process; probably something to do at beginning of a design brief. According to this view, which I think is fairly pervasive in service design today, you need to get inside the heads of your users and then map out who they are, before you design for them.

I don’t think the “empathy stage” is a good way to think about empathy or design.

If empathy is a way to think about human relationships then there is no clear end to empathising. As soon as another person, or group of people, come into our lives as designers they never really leave us. They will forever exist somewhere in our memories, making up our understanding of the social world. To empathise is to be open to the deep reality and experience of other people.

We will never meet everyone alive in the world so those people we do meet, or learn with in some way, are very special to our understanding of the world, and even to who we (our self) are. Every person we meet influences us in some way, personally and professionally.

If you meet a service user and you learn about who they are — their gender, age, ethnicity, and so on — and then you follow your designerly instincts, going further in hearing their stories, their needs, beliefs, hopes — you are learning about that person but you are also learning about yourself. Each person you meet will change how you understand and remember everyone else you have met before, and everyone you will go on to meet. And it will transform you as a designer!

This is thinking about life “as a process” — as movement in the social world.

I don’t want here to pass judgement about ways of capturing empathy, whether through personas, empathy maps, interviews, or ethnography; I am bringing out the complexity of empathy as a process, and the implications for human-centered design.

There is no end to empathy, even if there is only so much time we can give to discussing empathy through our conversations and tool kits. But I think this means I would like to see empathy taken out of the design process — as just a step on the way to a solution — and instead position empathy as a way of thinking about being a designer, and a way to ask questions about the design process. For example, we can ask at every stage of the process “Are we thinking about empathy?”, “what can empathy tell us about the process so far?” and so on. The constraints and requirements of the process (e.g. “user needs”) need to be built into the “design brief”, but to call this empathy is to confuse human relationships and the artefacts of design. Producing “personas” is often more about making people easier to understand than actually understanding them better.

Empathy is the end goal — the underlying purpose — as much as the means to successful design. This means it should never end, it should keep coming back into the way we do things.