Closing the distance between now and the future

New approaches for building systems empathy in design

John Payne
Design Intelligence


I recently wrote an article for EPIC People, a global organization focused on ethnography in business and design. That piece, “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and (Empathic) Understanding?” takes on the empathy backlash beginning to ripple through the research and design community.

Still from “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding” video, by Elvis Costello, 1979

My assertion is that empathy remains crucial for good design, but that we need to get beyond the “user” and their “needs” to build empathy for every participant in the complex systems we design. Extending that argument, here are some further thoughts on building systems empathy by situating us and our audiences together in a nonexistent—but possible—future.

Empathizing with an audience who doesn’t yet exist

Empathy is much easier to build if you can establish an emotional connection with real people who have problems to solve and unmet needs to address. While many design projects are meant to take on those pre-existing problems directly, others are more future-oriented. How can we responsibly design for people who don’t yet have a need to find?

Speculative design and anticipatory ethnography

Anticipatory Ethnography: Design Fiction as an Input to Design Ethnography” explores a way to make imagined futures more tangible. The three authors invoke speculative design and discuss an approach they call “anticipatory ethnography” as a way to better understand the potential social effects brought about by design decisions. Comparing a traditional design approach to a speculative one they point out a way to bring empathy into complex, ambiguous, and difficult to imagine situations.

The traditional model of design invariably arrives at a singular ‘preferable’ outcome. Speculative design is distinct in that it strives to open up a discursive space that is underwritten by the unavoidable plurality of the future. As Dunne & Raby put it “the idea is not to show how things will be but to open up a space for discussion.” —Lindley, Sharma & Potts from EPIC 2014 Proceedings (login to read)

Still from “Anticipatory Ethnography: Design Fiction as an Input to Design Ethnography” EPIC 2014

The authors go on offer three possible approaches for bringing anticipatory ethnography into the design process:

  • Studying the process of creating a design fiction
  • Studying how an audience interacts with or perceives a design fiction
  • Studying the content of a design fiction

All three of these approaches hold significant promise for helping us and our audiences achieve the “situated-ness” necessary to engage empathically with possible futures.

Learning from live systems

For a more pragmatic example, my friend and sometimes colleague, Josh Seiden, recently told the story of his project with Taproot Foundation. The project goal: to create a web-based product to match pro bono service providers with non-profit organizations who need their assistance. In his talk, “Learning From Live Systems” at Interaction 16, he describes the use of Concierge MVP approach to create what he calls, “a place of action.”

Still from “Learning From Live Systems: A Design Approach for Behavior” video, Interaction 16

Interaction design is not about computing technology. Behavior is our medium.—Robert Fabricant

Josh’s assertion: If behavior is our medium, then we as designers need to mold and shape the behaviors we seek while we work. Recognizing that they could more quickly build empathy if people interacted directly with the product, they created a web site front-end of the system, but instead of building any back-end technology, they performed all the functions of the matching system manually for a period of time using spreadsheets and email. Operating the proof-of-concept as a live service gave them the opportunity to prototype and iterate with the community directly to learn what was viable. Once they had learned enough about how people would use this new service, they designed and built the technology that would replace what they had been doing manually.

Simulating tomorrow to build empathy today

These two methods occupy opposite ends of a spectrum, from the immersive film or experience of a design fiction, to the directly simulated reality of a Concierge MVP. Similar to more traditional design methods like “experience prototyping,” they create a prototype or simulation to situate us in a possible future and allow us to suspend our disbelief, helping us gain empathy for our audiences and learn more about how they might engage with as yet unbuilt products and services.



John Payne
Design Intelligence

Design Leadership at @momentdesign. Board at @publicpolicylab. An #hcux focused optimist trying to stay that way despite the emerging techno-dystopia.