What’s wrong with ‘empathy’ in design?

When we examine how empathy is framed in design, it can often emphasise it as a skill, characteristic, a method associated with user-experience research or a process like ‘empathetic design’ to gain insight and inspiration. See how the ‘Open Empathy’ call in Cumulus Conference Hong Kong (2016) describes empathy as an ‘essential mental habit’ that informs human action, where designers ‘separated from the so-called mysterious-to-them users’ can benefit from ‘introducing empathy into their research processes’. In another, Stanford dschool talks about empathise as a ‘mode’, set of activities and a stage in a process, before moving into ‘define mode’.

Why is empathy framed this way? The root cause of this is because empathy in most design take a psychological orientation. This psychological premise starts from separating self and other where the self is reified and actualised in order to walk in the others’ shoes to achieve an emotional identification or grasp the others’ internal frame. Empathy is often assumed as a ‘good’ quality as if it is a constant. This also dangerously leads to assumptions that empathy allows one to speak on behalf of others, as if having ‘felt’ what the other person feels leads to conceptualise ‘correctly’ on their behalf. This view is problematic when working across difference as it can omit the positionality of the perceiver. Many critics suggest that ‘it is impossible for the members of one social group to understand the experiences of another, particularly across division of power’.

Related to this is a well-established critique of the narrowness that omits how people are already entangled in a complex relational system, embedded in cultural, political, institutional, socio-material contexts. In Elizabeth Shove’ s seminal provocation she explains how the ABC — attitude, behaviour and choice — model derives from a strand of psychology that emphasises individualised agency and rational concepts of need where ‘social change is thought to depend upon values and attitudes (the A), which are believed to drive the kinds of behaviour (the B) that individuals choose (the C) to adopt’ . Here, ‘motivators’, ‘incentives’, ‘barriers’ appear in a causal, external and linear way, creating a ‘blind spot’ for social arrangements where ‘institutions, infrastructures and daily life interact’. This dominance of ABC thinking is evident in much of design, and the same ‘blind spot’ persists that atomises people, often categorising them into ‘users’, ‘customers’ or ‘stakeholders’ in limited categories and descriptions.

In contrast, there is another view of empathy that takes a relational, co-constructed encounter, where overlaps are recognised as much as points of disconnect. Here, empathy can be considered as a communicative action, like a dialogue, contextually emerging in-between. To see empathy in a processual way acknowledges its partial incompleteness so ‘connection is worked for, with and through difference’ by those already interrelated, to discover how their own positioning and perspective is fluidly and continually constructed through encounters with one another. This means pursuing intimacy as an alternative to the way empathy often features in design, can foreground a different orientation to relating.

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[These texts have been stitched together from two articles published in 2017 from — to continue reading, please go to:

Akama, Y., & Yee, J. (2016, Nov 21–24). Seeking stronger plurality: Intimacy and integrity in designing for social innovation. Paper presented at the Cumulus Hong Kong: Open Design for E-very-thing, Hong Kong.



Akama, Y. (2017). ‘With great power comes great responsibility’ when we co-create futures. Journal of Marketing Management, 33(3–4), 272–279. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0267257X.2017.1284433