Courtesy of The Shopping Sherpa. Creative Commons license.

Empathy Then and Now

Henry Dreyfuss and Indi Young


The most efficient machine is the one that is built around a person.
- Henry Dreyfuss, Designing for People, 1955

The story of why is about the purpose a person has for doing something.
- Indi Young, Practical Empathy, 2015

I've been a follower of Indi Young’s ideas for many years, and I was excited to read her recent book, Practical Empathy: For Collaboration and Creativity in Your Work (Rosenfeld Media, 2015). I was a latecomer to Henry Dreyfuss. I put Designing for People (Allworth Press, 1955) on my professional book wish list a few years ago. I received a copy as a gift this past Christmas, and I started reading it as I was finishing up Young's Practical Empathy.

While reading Designing for People, I was alternately charmed by Dreyfuss's methods and annoyed by the old-school stereotypes. Thinking about how those stereotypes might (unintentionally) work their way into his design, I realized this could be an interesting comparison with Indi Young's work on mental models and empathy. I want to start with Young, because this is my literal starting point and represents my personal context. Then I'll turn to Dreyfuss.

Indi Young: A Heady Approach to Empathy

Indi Young studied computer science and started her career as a software engineer. In 2001, she co-founded Adaptive Path, a leading design thinking and design strategy agency, which recently became part of Capital One. Since 2006, she has worked primarily as a consultant. I became aware of Young through Adaptive Path. Her 2008 book, Mental Models: Aligning Design Strategy with Human Behavior (Rosenfeld Media), turned me into a follower of her ideas.

I’ll admit that I didn't love the book at first: her writing style did not resonate with me, and I was confused by some of the tactics she described. But her ideas sunk in, and I consider them key parts of the design toolkit:

  • Start with an understanding of how people think, especially how they think about their goals and tasks.
  • Make a visible model of what you learned -- Young's mental model diagram.
  • Then line up your offering to the mental model to look for gaps, traffic jams, and mismatches.
Simple example of a mental model diagram: The user mental model goes on top with the product offering underneath (in this case, products from a consumer health/beauty company). Gaps show where there is no offering. Items at lower right are part of the offering that do not line up with anything in user mental model. Courtesy of Rosenfeld Media. Creative Commons license.

So I was excited to get my hands on Young’s new book, Practical Empathy, when it came out last year. Again, I found her writing style not resonating well with me, but I know there are important ideas in her book. I don’t yet know how important these will be for me over time, and I am still trying to find the full meaning.

Here’s a quick summary of Practical Empathy:

The role of empathy

  • We face a lot of data in our workplaces, most of which is framed as science but isn’t.
  • Qualitative data is often discounted as soft, whereas quantitative data is characterized as solid by its very nature, as if they are two ends of a spectrum. Rather, the two are different types of data, each on its own spectrum of soft to solid (see illustration below).
  • Things that sound like science tend to win the day in our organizations.
  • Big organizations, e.g., Amazon, can look at their quantitative data and ask “why?” and then find out why. But most organizations can’t or won’t.
  • We can use empathy to understand the “deeper reasoning and principles that guide people’s actions” (14).
  • Empathy in this context means “understanding how another person thinks … acknowledging her reasoning and emotions as valid, even if they differ from your own understanding” (vii).

Developing empathy

  • You can develop empathy through careful listening, focused on identifying the underlying patterns in people’s thinking.
  • To do this, you must let go of your instinct to respond in any way: “Be passive and neutral” (76).

Applying empathy

  • Use your new, deeper understanding of people to create behavioral segments.
  • Avoid the superficial descriptions and stereotyping we see in many personas — the over-reliance on demographics that can mislead us.
  • Instead, focus on peoples’ mindset as your guide.
Quantitative and qualitative data are different types of data, each with its own spectrum of “soft” to “hard.” Courtesy of Rosenfeld Media​. Creative Commons license.

In follow-up to the publication of her Practical Empathy, Young has been speaking and blogging about the topic. I found two recent articles especially helpful in extending my understanding of this empathy framework.

In “Product Strategy: Clinging to Assumptions” (Interactions, ACM, May-June 2016, pages 66-69), Young looks at how assumptions pervade our work, even in the face of good intentions. She states that a leading indicator of this problem is an over-reliance on demographic information when referring to users or personas.

In “Describing Personas” (Medium, March 14, 2016), Young looks specifically at the role of demographics in personas, including input from many designers via Twitter on the topic. She repeats her concern that demographics can trigger biases that hinder us, unrelated to solving the problem at hand. Young points out that demographically different people often have the same needs and the same reasoning, so we should treat them as a single segment. However, their demographic differences can fool us into thinking they are distinct segments. For instance, we may end up with a young persona and an old persona, but in reality they are a single segment we need to solve for.

Does this photo help you design better? How about if I cropped it differently to show her iPhone 6S — the same model her daughter (and granddaughter) use? What assumptions do you begin to make just by seeing the photograph?

Henry Dreyfuss: Industrial Era Empathy

Henry Dreyfuss was an industrial designer who helped shape that field starting in the late 1920s. His work spans household appliances, airplanes and cruise liners, World’s Fair exhibits, and military strategy rooms. Dreyfuss started his career in theater set design in New York City in the 1920s. He opened his shop as an industrial designer in 1929, and his reputation grew quickly. His firm continues today as Henry Dreyfuss Associates in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

In 1955, after thirty-some years on the job, Dreyfuss published Designing for People, in which he described his approach to industrial design and shared many stories from his long career. He revised the book in 1967. Dreyfuss co-founded the Industrial Design Society of America, serving as its first president in 1965. He retired from his company in 1969 and published his final book, Symbol Sourcebook: An Authoritative Guide to International Graphic Symbols​ (Wiley), in 1972, the same year Dreyfuss died.

New York Central 20th Century Limited steam locomotive, designed by Henry Dreyfuss in 1937. DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University.

As Dreyfuss recounts in Designing for People, during his early years as an industrial designer - the early 1930s - he saw that manufacturers were competing on the bottom line. They were making functional products with a “stagnant sameness” (18). He found that some manufacturers saw the potential to differentiate their products by “making the product work better, more convenient to the consumer, and better-looking” (18). Partnering with these manufacturers, Dreyfuss developed a mindset that drove his firm’s work:

What we are working on is going to be ridden in, sat upon, looked at, talked into, activated, operated, or in some way used by people individually or en masse. If the point of contact between the product and the people becomes a point of friction, then the industrial designer has failed. If, on the other hand, people are made safer, more comfortable, more eager to purchase, more efficient - or just plain happier - the designer has succeeded (23-24).

This could pretty easily be the credo of a design firm in the year 2016. I found that much of Dreyfuss’s approach to work was still in use today. For example, he emphasizes that the industrial designer needs to partner with the manufacturer (business owner), engineers, production team, and sales team — much like any designer today would emphasize the need to partner with all parts of the organization and have influence from early days through the production, release, and life cycle of the product.

At the heart of the Dreyfuss studio we find Joe and Josephine. These are “austere line drawings of a man and a woman [that] occupy places of honor on the walls” of the studio. In the book, he calls them the hero and heroine. They are ever-present reminders of the real people that he and his staff design for. He emphasizes that they are austere, not romanticized in any way. First and foremost, they document and radiate a ton of data about the human body: its size, shape, and range of motion. Joe and Josephine have children, so that Dreyfuss can also design for kids. And while Joe and Josephine capture averages, they also show extremes of small to large, since “people come in assorted rather than average sizes” (27).

Illustrations from Designing for People, showing parts of the Joe and Josephine drawings that Dreyfuss used to guide his work (pages 32–35, photographed by Weston Thompson).

Let’s look briefly at the industrial design process that Dreyfuss outlines in his chapter, "How the Designer Works":

  1. First determine if the proposed project matches your ability to contribute. If not, don’t take it.
  2. Meet with all the teams or departments.
    Here he notes that the designer’s ability to listen and visualize back may be the most important contribution. I have heard similar themes among UX designers and information architects recently: A key contribution is to help the organization or team understand itself.
  3. Conduct a market study, competitive research, and understand broader trends (beyond what the client sees).
  4. Familiarize yourself with the manufacturing process and constraints.
  5. Partner with the engineers.
  6. Make drawings and then models.
  7. Lead construction of the final model. These should be full-sized, even for ships and train cars!
  8. Assist with production work, helping the team solve problems and making compromises as you go.
  9. Design the packaging (maybe even the delivery truck).

Interestingly, Dreyfuss does not have a step for what I call user research, other than market and competitive research. However, he follows this with a chapter dedicated to “The Importance of Testing.” Dreyfuss suggests working with a professional researcher, especially for their ability to uncover the customer's true feelings versus what they think you want to hear. He points out that a rigorous research process can help balance against anecdotes masquerading as research. Dreyfuss shares several stories of business owners who were unduly swayed by the opinion of their spouse.

However, Dreyfuss emphasizes that firsthand research is critical for the designer. For Dreyfuss, research is not so much part of the process as it is part of the designer. He wants the designer to spend time doing the job, the task, the activity, and using the tool.

Finally, in a step that rings true for today’s product teams, Dreyfuss relies heavily on testing working mockups of the intended product, including full-size mockups of ships, train cars, and airplane interiors.

Good Intentions and the Power of Subtle Differences

Working in an industrial age, focused on industrial design of physical products large and small, Henry Dreyfuss clearly values empathy, though I don’t recall him using that word. He refers to it in terms of the designer’s skill and expertise: “It might seem to some that the designer lays claim to a special omniscience … He makes no such claim … He approaches every problem with a willingness to do painstaking study and research and to perform exhaustive experimentation” (24). And in so doing, the designer builds up an internal store of knowledge and the ability to stand in for the user.

In many ways, this is what Indi Young is aiming for sixty years later: Ensuring that our product and service design solutions start from a deep understanding of the customer. She explicitly reaches beyond shaping the designer however, and aims to shape the organization - or the way the organization works.

And while Dreyfuss explicitly calls out that people are not averages, he reflects the biases of his day:

  • Home appliances help housewives.
  • Commuter train interiors are for white collar working men.
  • Pesky wives of business owners offer up unwanted opinions about colors.

Despite good intentions to base design on a real understanding of real people, he may have fallen victim to the demographic red herrings that Young cautions us about. By focusing on the visible differences between users, we fail to focus on the key drivers of decisions and actions — those lower-level mindsets and ways of thinking that might in fact transcend physical attributes, age, or socio-economic status.

And here is where Young drives home the key idea that we are all subject to bias: we cannot avoid it. But we can use methods to minimize the impact, to force ourselves to find the more meaningful answer, and thereby transcend our biases to identify the true opportunity.


I originally published this on our internal UX blog at ADP. Thanks to my coworkers for their support, especially Kate Russell, who helped with several rounds of editing.