Empathy and solving human problems.

Let’s talk a bit about empathy.

I’m guessing, if you’re reading this, you think empathy is important to design, and for designers. That’s true, but why is that? And what, exactly, makes empathy important?

Let’s start by defining empathy. A quick Google search tells us that empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” I think that defines it quite nicely, so let’s go with that. So, why is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another important for designers?

A meeting with little humans. Photo by D. Keith Robinson

Put simply, regardless of what, specifically, you’re designing, you’re working on human problems.

It may very often seem like the problems you solve as a software designer are software problems, an interface designer has interface problems, a hardware designer, material problems, etc. etc. And while there are problems with all of those things and more, the underlying problems designers are trying to solve are human.

Design can be defined in many different ways, but I don’t think you can have a solid definition of design without mention of another human for the designer to design for.

But the human problems a designer will need to solve throughout their career are not limited to those of their customers and users. In fact, many of the problems that get in the way of doing good design work occur within a designer’s own workplace.

It could probably be argued that a designer’s ability to communicate, educate and collaborate within workplace is the most important indicator of their ability to ship successful design solutions. Empathy is a huge part of that. In fact, I think it would be very difficult to succeed without the ability to empathize with your co-workers.

Let’s not stop there! I’ll take it a step further and say that empathy is one of humanity’s most important abilities and it’s a skill that, while inherently important to design, is also invaluable to our evolution as a species. Sometime in the future, our survival could quite literally depend on our ability to empathize with others.

Bold words, to be sure, but I really do think our ability to relate to others can reap huge benefits…or cause major harm.

There is a lot to that argument, so let’s scope it to design, and using empathy to solve problems.

But wait! What about data?!

Before I continue, let’s talk a bit about data, as it’s often (as it should be, IMO) a big part of how designers approach problems. It helps us know what problems to solve, to begin with, and can go a long way to validating our thinking and ensure that we’re on the right track to a solution along the way.

It’s important, and without it we’d often be left to guess work. Nobody wants that. So where does empathy fit in a data-informed design world?

In my mind it’s an essential piece of a designer’s tool kit. Data is important, but data alone can’t effectively solve problems. Especially the tricky, sticky human problems we all wrestle with. Empathy + data make a powerful combo that allows you to approach problems in a much more powerful way. I suppose you can think of empathy as simply another form data, if that helps, but I find that a bit counter intuitive.

Speaking of intuition, here is sort of where empathy and data meet. In fact, you could say that “gut feeling” is, in some ways, a pairing of your empathy with all the things you’ve experienced or learned. Empathy might be looked at as the human part of those experiences.

I think a solid argument could be made that the more you’re able to empathize with those you’re designing for, the more effective you’ll be at using data to solve human problems. It could be argued that going with an “empathy-first” design process might make you a bit blind to patterns, or biased towards certain solutions, but having the data, and then interpreting it through an empathetic lens can be a very good way of approaching problems.

Empathy is important. Empathy is hard.

So, yeah, I think it’s important. It’s also much harder than we often give it credit.

While I think putting effort into empathy does matter, it’s not something you get from simply talking to people. You have to really, honestly, try and understand and relate to people.

Recent studies have shown that empathy is especially hard to develop for people that aren’t like us. And, let’s face it, designers are often faced with situations where they’re solving problems for people who have little in common with them.

(Anecdotally, I’ve noted that people tend to think they have more in common with others than they actually do, making developing one’s empathetic skill even trickier.)

Empathy can be extremely uncomfortable. It’s not about making someone happy, or about liking a person or having them like you. Empathy doesn’t mean “agreement” — and it’s not “agree to disagree” either — it’s about understanding (or trying to understand) another’s experience.

It’s about, as Brené Brown puts it, “feeling with people.”

The good(ish) news!

Put simply, as hard as empathy is to develop, it’s a skill that can be acquired and improved upon by anyone. It doesn’t require any particular talent or innate ability. In fact, although there might be certain personality types that are more inclined to be universally empathetic, it’s also something that many struggle with.

I think empathy starts (and ends) with honesty, sometimes brutal honesty. Just trying to develop empathy isn’t enough — you have to honestly want empathy itself, not only the benefits you’d derive from it. Going through the motions isn’t enough. You can’t fake it.

You have to listen. You have to be selfless. To have an open mind. To have a beginner’s mind. To try not to judge.

It’s a two way transaction where you get and you give. Empathy requires you to give of yourself (to put the “you” in “user” as I’ve been overly fond of saying lately) without giving too much. Giving too much sort-of defeats the purpose.

So where should you start?

Just doing something (“action begets action” is one of new favorite design principles) is really the best way to work on empathy. It’s not enough, but the act of trying to listen, trying to understand and trying to have an open mind to another’s experience can get the ball rolling.

Schedule chats with people. Have interviews with your customers and co-workers. Spend time with them, listen to them, observe them. You’ll probably have a harder time getting into the experience of some people than you do others, and that’s ok. In fact, that’s a great opportunity for learning.

Another great way to begin is to offer to help. When someone asks for volunteers, raise your hand.

If developing empathy is about giving and receiving, part of the process is learning about yourself, and seeing how your own experience maps to another’s.

But you can’t just do it and stop there. Like most skills it’ll atrophy over time. If you’ve got a good sense for your user’s experience and don’t interact with them over a period of months, you can safely assume you’re probably out of touch. So make it a cadence and part of your regular practice and work.

Can empathy be taught? I honestly don’t know — but it definitely is something anyone can learn and something every designer should be choosing to work into their design practice.


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