Empathy 101: A Reflection

Paricha 'Bomb' D.
Oct 6, 2020 · 9 min read

An introductory Q&A about the first epic step of design thinking

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Build it and they will come.

This oft-misquoted line from a baseball movie captures pretty well the raison d’être of design thinking, and in particular empathy-building. Perhaps it is design thinking’s alter moniker, human-centered design, that more clearly reflects the designers’ north star: to listen to people so that we can create products and services that satisfy real human needs.

Examples abound in the tech industry with the many hardware solutions and shiny new apps that started off with grand visions, rather than key insights into human behaviour (the Segway, anyone?). Of course, lack of user insights doesn’t always lead to a catastrophic, company-folding event —especially if the team pivots quickly. Having a clear focus on building empathy (a.k.a. user research) and therefore finding real needs before making big investments will always be beneficial and sustainable for the business. Below are a few starting questions about empathy that I’ve shared with clients and colleagues alike.

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The Segway took a while to catch on, didn’t it?

Q: Why is empathy important?

A: Because we all have assumptions!

My first “real” job out of graduate school as a engineer was at a startup working on an alternative, cheaper natural gas storage system for automobiles. The company went the way most startups did at the end, but I learnt a valuable lesson as I was sitting in our very makeshift and thrifty lab in a shopping mall’s garage (we joked that we were doing “Walmart” science because that’s where we got most of our materials). That lesson? That good business models and a working prototype isn’t enough to make a business case. Our first — and only — pilot project was retrofitting an industrial-scale lawnmower for a golf course.

We made assumptions at the time: that our customer (the operators of the golf course) would like our system because it saves on fuel costs and is a lower-emission solution, that our users would change their work schedules around our new mode of filling up the gas tanks (the system came with some technical quirks). But more critically, we thought that one person saying yes would scale up to a thousand. It didn’t.

In my mind, that’s because we really didn’t account for the user needs or experience around our product, and instead relied on untested assumptions to make a key business decision.

Without empathy, we might as well be a blindfolded team making guesses at an elephant.

The elephant, in this case, is more or less the direction of a product’s development or a product experience. In any given company, people from various disciplines — the ones exploring the elephant from various sides — have different approaches. And we’re all blindfolded because we have our biases and assumptions that comes with experience and expertise.

Q: How do we build empathy?

A: By spending time with the people who use your products/services.

In my empathy workshops, I would share 4 ways of building empathy: observation, intercept, immersion, and interviews. I would also emphasize that most of my research work comes from deep user interviews, well-prepared ahead of time. Regardless of these “modes” of empathy building, the key here is to do your best to spend time with the people who you are designing for — so that you can as much as possible see the way they see the world.

For my master’s degree, I decided to explore the problem of electric vehicles (EV) adoption through the lens of human-centered design. I’m not by any means a “car person”, which I thought gave me an enjoyably steep learning curve during the project (and prove that design thinking, done well, can be applied across disciplines).

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Getting an EV is like riding a struggle bus!

For the project, I interviewed about 30 drivers and more than a few stakeholders — experts, EV service providers, amongst others. I put myself and my team through the experience of EV drivers, like finding charging stations, troubleshooting broken ones (literally asking for help from a nearby building), visiting a showroom, test driving an EV, prototyping a peer-to-peer test drive, and navigating online forums for relevant information.

All of these gave us a better perspective of what a potential EV buyer experiences. For example, if I hadn’t gone for a test drive, I wouldn’t have understood the disappointment new buyers feel when they escape highly technical information sources online, only to find reluctant salespeople who’s clearly neither interested in selling nor knowledgable about electric cars (Tesla, of course, is the exception to this experience). This is one insight that can be used for designing better “learning about EVs” experiences.

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Q: What’s a good question to ask?

A: Differentiate between “research questions” and “interview questions”

A question that frequently comes up when talking to clients about empathy is: “Can you teach us how to ask good questions?” This is a symptom of a traditional belief that asking the right questions will elicit the right answers which will lead to the next big thing.

And while, yes, the core of empathy / user research work does rely on holding a conversation in which questions will be asked, I think it’s important to state clearly that there is no magical “right” question to ask your users. Only “good” questions.

What I’ve found to be a useful distinction when teaching the skills of asking good questions — and I 100% believe it is a skill — is the difference between a research question and an interview question, a frame I myself learnt within these Medium pages. A research question is one that you as a researcher is interested in answering to get insights for moving your project forward. An interview question is one which you would actually ask your interviewees, to get to the juicy stories, latent needs and hidden worldviews.

For example, a research question for the EV project in the previous section is “what are the pain points of current EV drivers?”, which I convert to interview questions such as “how did you choose your current EV model?”, “what was the buying experience like?”, or “what do you miss about driving an ICE car?”

Another way to spot the difference between the two is to try asking these questions to your friends, maybe some friendly folks in your user groups. A good interview question would ellicit emotional stories that you can follow up on (“why is that?”). Emotional stories often signal a hidden meaning of some sort, which you can address alongside functional needs — more on this later.

Q: What if the user has no experience with a product or service, or a possible future you’re envisioning?

A: Prototype, one must!

When you hear “autonomous micromobility”, what do you think of? A combination of drones and scooters and killer robots perhaps? The idea is basically what it sounds like — a small mode of transportation that can drive itself to passengers, to park, or when necessary. Nothing that’s on the road yet to be sure (circa. 2020), but an intriguing enough idea for a global energy company looking ahead to the future.

I came on the project looking to explore how people would feel about a non-existent product, my design research guns out and ready. I didn’t know what to do, at least until I sat down with my design crew at the Loft in my design program, one of whom has previously taken a VR course. Aha!

We decided to take a 360 camera for a test run, to see if we can simulate a scooter that comes to you with the call of a button (like a mini, driverless Uber). It was harder than expected (the mechanics, not the VR). So we settled for a simple ride from our campus to the train station, prototyping a future of multi-modal transportation in sunny California.

The final video isn’t ideal to address our research question (which all prototypes should!), but it gave us an artifact with which to start a conversation. What if you saw this outside your house? Would this change the way you commute? What might other drivers on the road say? In other words, you can go beyond words or even paper visualization when talking about a new, futuristic idea. If you’re thinking about prototyping, you might keep one golden rule in mind.

Q: What does a user need look like?

A: A generative user need is the form of a verb!

Design thinking talks a lot about finding users’ real needs. But how do we know we’ve found one?

Hopping back on the popular misquoted quotes wagon, Henry Ford once purportedly said, “if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” In reality, what people wanted was to get from point A to point B faster. Others might have wanted to show up at their social gatherings not smelling like horse poop. One simple rule that I hang on to mentally is that a want is always framed as a noun while a need can be found in the wild in the form of a verb.

Running is a verb

Why a verb? Because we can come up with many solutions (nouns!) to satisfy that one verb, thus innovation (or at least product differentiation). From the previous horse example, we could create an air-tight suit that blocks all smells from hanging on to your evening attire or a super powerful cologne or a horse-poop cleaning service every hour, at the top of the hour — all from the need (verb!) to smell fresh. Voilà!

Q: What kinds of needs are there?

A: At least 2 — obvious functional needs and non-obvious emotional needs

One theory for explaining our needs is the Satir Iceberg model, which compares how we lead our lives with an iceberg which floats on water. The part of the iceberg above water represents our behaviours, visible to and observable by others. The part of the iceberg beneath the water represents our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, worldview, and other invisible constructs that motivates to act a certain way (i.e. drives our behaviours).

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Our needs, then, are reflected in both the “above water” and “below water” parts — as functional and emotional needs, respectively. What do these mean?

For a project on elderly caregiving, we traveled around Bangkok to spend time in people’s homes and interview their caregivers about their needs (note: the needs of the caregiver themselves, not so much the elderly folks). We started the interviews with a discussion of the level of assistance the elderly needs with Activities of Daily Living (ADL) and Instrumental Activities of Daily Living (iADL), the latter of which can enable the elderly to live independently.

These are what we might categorize as “functional” needs for elderly themselves, the opposite of which can become the caregivers’ — e.g. elderly’s need with moving around the house → caregiver’s need to redesign appropriate living spaces. In this case, “functional” can mostly be translated roughly as physical help.

Living spaces needs to be soft and clean and slip-proof

What we wanted to understand more are the hidden or latent needs, the behind-the-scenes when they’re offering their help to the elderly. What do they struggle with in their own lives? How do they prepare for their new caregiving responsibilities? What do they worry about the most in emergencies?

These questions, and others, offer a glimpse into their emotional lives. We heard about feelings of guilt driving their everyday decisions, about mental health taking a turn, about formal caregiving education and social circles alleviating their stresses. These latent “emotional” needs, one could argue, unite a group of people into personas.

There you have it folks! This is only the very beginning of your empathy-building journey.

Using empathy in your design work is challenging and rewarding, will demand your attention and patience and tears in equal parts. We wrote a bit about how to think about empathy. You might also want to check out this article on interview guides or this article on interview guidelines from our collection.

Now go forth and empathize!


Curious ruminations on human-centered design, by Amplifi Design and friends

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