Real Empathy Is To Treat Users As Humans, Not Victims of Capitalism

Contextual interviews, personas, empathy mapping, journey mapping… if you are a designer, you probably know exactly what I am talking about. These are the tools that help us put ourselves into our users’ shoes. We usually refer to them as “tools to build empathy”. After reading through hundreds of design case studies and seeing design in the industry, I wonder, are we really being empathetic? Are we really improving the lives of our users? Or are we identifying user pain points to help businesses capitalize them?

Let’s say data shows that there is a reduction in engagement on a social media platform. As designers, we will conduct user research or work with researchers to find out why. And let’s say we found that people are frustrated by the number of ads they see on the platform. We will then move on to framing the problem as an opportunity space like “how might we make ads more seamless?” then exploring different interactions and interfaces to tackle the problem and raise engagement.

What’s wrong here is that we didn’t even question the long-term impact of increasing the engagement on our users.

Do we really need to maximize that engagement when they are already spending 2–3 hours on the platform each day? Do we really need to risk their long-term health by making them even more addicted to the platform? It is like we observed that a happy kid cried. So we did a research and discovered that it’s because he wanted more sweets after having 10 already. If you are the parent, would you want some designers from a candy store to design an experience that will lure your kids in even more in order to increase the revenue? Probably not.

A lot of the time the problems are inherent in the nature of the business model. Some might even argue that it’s not the business’ responsibilities to be considerate about the long-term impact on their users as business has to make money. And maybe they are right. Maybe it’s just the nature of capitalism that makes us prioritize money over humanity. But I think this can be and needs to be changed; we need to treat our users as humans, not victims of capitalism.

🎬 Action Station

Here are some actionable items that can get us started:

Designers

Treat users as humans by thinking long-term and voicing potential negative consequences the solutions can cause. I know that it is already hard to balance between business and user needs, to think about both short-term and long-term impact is even more difficult. However, as people who are the closest to the users, we own the ability and responsibility to speak up for their long-term wellbeing.

Here is a persona template that can help get you and your team thinking about both short and long-term impact on your users:

Businesses (for those who care)

Hire system-thinker, researchers and/or design ethicist, and engage them in the process end-to-end. I am not saying that businesses should prioritize long-term impact on people’s wellbeing over monetary gains. At the end of the day, businesses still need money to operate and to drive changes. But I think businesses should aim for balance and sustainability instead of maximization.

Users (all of us)

It will take time, maybe several months or years, for businesses to change. What you can do right now is to protect yourself. When you see headlines or marketing campaigns saying that a company is making your life better, be skeptical. Here, I used social media as an example, but this applies to all types of businesses, especially those who pride themselves that being “human-centric”.

Here is a framework that might help you reflect on your consumption:

These are NOT meant to be a perfect or exhaustive list of solutions, but a starting point for us to discuss and iterate upon different ways we can make design and business more ethical and sustainable. It’s not easy and takes work from all of us, that’s why we started this publication to spark conversations and create a space we can learn from each other. Please join in on this journey 💥


Beyond The Surface aims to explore paths towards a more ethical, inclusive and sustainable world through exchanging conversations and growing with the community. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment below or reach us at beyondthesurface.co@gmail.com. Let’s talk!