Why is empathy important for design?

Empathy is one way of thinking about the difference between art and design. If art is about exploring the possibility of human imagination and expressing this through physical media, design is about exploring the possibility of human imagination and connecting this to the reality of people’s lives. Design is about being helpful and useful as well as being provocative and surprising. Design makes “the art of the possible” a collective endeavor.

The mantra of design research, as adopted for example by the UK’s Government Digital Service, is to “help my team learn about our users so we can make a better service”. This has a kind of elegant simplicity, but it is a recipe lacking essential ingredients. For example, we might learn through observations and interviews that our users express low expectations of our service. Their expectations might be about speed over wider qualities of the service experience. We might then take this learning and focus on speed in our design brief, with the aim to make things “better”. No doubt, speed and efficiency have become key criteria for UX designers (“how many clicks does it take?”).

Within the design process, user researchers have become the experts to help us learn about users. They claim this power through a set of research methods — journey maps, interviews, and personas — which help us to discover “user needs”. The danger with this way of thinking is that it creates a pseudoscience to replace empathy: there is a “right” way and “wrong” way to learn about users. You “discover” their needs before you “test” them.

Empathy is different to learning about users through a prescribed research method. Rather than attempting to objectify users, to “map out” their cognitive or emotional experience, empathy flows more readily when designers learn “with” people who find themselves acting in the role of a “user”, “customers”, etc. Thinking empathically is not about taking something from the user, like extracting resources from a mine, so you can then give them something more valuable back in return. Empathy is the part of a relationship that carries meaning and care — it is more relational than transactional. And this kind of relationship can be quite “inefficient”.

Empathy is important because it awakens our senses as designers. User research has the danger of reducing the complexity of people to a few words on a sticky note. Empathy, in contrast, seeks to enrich and deepen the experience through human sensation. This is where “service channels” become relevant — how does technology change the relationship? How much of the person lives in a text chat? How much on a voice call? When designers talk about service “touch points” how often are they thinking about the reciprocal experience of sensory touch?

If I were to rephrase the design researcher mantra I would say something like “to create an empathic environment where people acting in the role of designer and service user can share their experiences and think imaginatively together”.

I think this view challenges the way that many designers think — that they need to understand the world “as it is” before they attempt to change it. I see this “objectivist” way of thinking in service design all of the time, with the formulaic toolkit of “personas” and “journey maps” replacing more authentic relationships between those involved in the service.

Thinking empathically resists finding shortcuts in human relationships. Empathy is the only way to put other people into the creative process; to turn artistic thinking into design thinking. Empathy is a privilege we should treat with respect.