Working with service design and user research for the past 7 years, I have been a strong advocate for empathy. Human-centric design and user research frame empathy as an essential tool and mindset to create value-creating service offerings. But something doesn’t feel quite right. It has taken me some time to reflect on why. If you are reading this, I hope these thoughts will give you something to think about on the subject as well.
The growing trend of embedding empathy is now exposing a serious problem. The idea of empathy has become so bloated and hyped that it is often used as a quality-stamp keyword to suggest user-centricity and insight-driven experiences. Whether it is a service concept, a new digital experience, or an organizational culture we are developing, it is about understanding why and how we can make a positive impact. Relying on empathy alone to guide us is misleading, and we risk continuing being complacent in our outdated practices.
To be clear, I am not suggesting empathy is not important. Being empathic enables one to relate to another, to better imagine what another person might feel and need. Consider Patricia Moore, the industrial designer who famously carried out the 3-year experiment in the 1970s, dressing up as 85-year old to discover what life was like as an elder. Empathy can fuel openness and invite perspectives. This also helps us in everyday life such as enjoying literature and navigating interpersonal relationships. But instead of seeing it as a virtue, we should consider it rather an instrument that can be used for good and for bad. So let me explain.
The word empathy has now been infused with a wide range of definitions. But it is not the secret sauce that guarantees a positive impact and changes we need for our world. According to both the English language and scientific definition of empathy, it is the ability to resonate and experience another’s feelings. When it comes to designing with empathy, walking in another person’s shoes can help us develop a deep respect for their experiences, culture, and challenges. So what is missing when we talk about empathy?
The flaws of empathy
1. Empathy is biased.
Humans are tribalists. We navigate within the boundaries of contexts which share familiarity with our own. We flock towards those who share similar backgrounds, cultural inclinations, social status and economic standing. Our perceptions are largely shaped by our values and experiences. It is much easier for us to empathise with another that shares similarities with ourselves. When attempting to be empathetic, we are indirectly projecting our biases and assumptions into the subjects and the scenarios. Imagine this, when conducting research and participant interviews, one subject is well-mannered, articulate and attractive, while another is put-off, defensive and reluctant to share. Suddenly, the inclination to relate will be much more significant for one than for the other, and the findings from these sessions will suffer greatly from subconscious bias.
2. Empathy does not address systemic problems.
When we empathise with others, we empathize with individuals and not groups. We use ways such as interviews and observations to relate to the individual. It is much more difficult to relate to cultures and systems. But our designs and concepts are nearly always for groups of people, a specific culture or specific social demographics.
A single-story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
When we use empathy to relate to one individual’s single story, it’s easy to be blinded by stereotypes. According to Yale professor Paul Bloom, empathy acts like a spotlight, zooming in on one or two individuals. When we empathize, we try to put ourselves in another’s shoes, but this is not possible to do for 100, 1000 or even larger groups of people. We zoom in on those we know and neglect the difference between the one and the mass. It is because of this that empathy can lead to unethical and dangerous decisions.
When we look at the general rise of xenophobic politicians, their messages emphasize the plight of specific people to appeal to their supporters’ empathy. As supporters raise an outcry stemming from frustrations of injustice and the need to avenge, they do not question about the downside of instigating division and hatred. An empathetic act has suddenly created blindspots for contexts and ethics.
3. Empathy can lead to neglect of unheard voices
Empathy suggests one’s understanding is sufficient to represent another’s voice. This does not warrant actively seeking out those impacted to be given the chance to share. Instead, we highlight what we presume to be valid without allowing those to speak for themselves. We may empathize with an idea that is not true, and our presumptions can lead to exclusion and prejudice.
When we design experiences or create solutions, inclusion and representation can often get in the way of keeping with the timeline or budget. It’s not always possible to get the right people at the table. We sometimes result in reaching only what is accessible and settle for our empathetic lens to detect the likely path to do the rest. But designing experiences require more than listening to them or simulating their lives. It takes interpreting the world through the lens of their culture, values, traditions and identity to connect with their perspectives.
So why do we need more than empathy?
Humans should not be the primary focus
To be cliche and quote a familiar phrase- “times are changing”. We are living in a world that no longer has the same parameters and circumstances as before. In order to survive (and thrive) as a global community, we need to collectively transform how we do things. Being human-centric has led us to prioritise people, but neglecting the world in which we live in. If we see being empathetic as the one requirement to fulfil for good design, we are not considering the context in which the design will need to thrive in.
Focusing on the needs of humans also often ignores the physical consequences and impacts we humans make. We optimize our systems for human success, not for the overall success of the local, regional or planetary systems.
Across the world, we have developed complex systems and infrastructure prioritising human needs and lifestyles. Our exploitation of our resources and environments have focused on short-term materialistic benefits without considering the long-lasting consequences. We cannot afford to only think about human needs anymore. It is more vital than ever to learn about the impact of our actions on the entirety of our ecosystems, and not just how it relates to our target customers. We need to look beyond a user-centric mindset and work towards a more holistic planet-centric practice.
Empathy is not enough, we need to turn it into action
We regularly assume empathetic people are kind and caring because of their ability to relate to others’ emotional or mental state. As much as a person is able to imagine how another person feels, it does not suggest the need to act, to make a change.
To create valuable experiences, we need to find the balance between understanding the group or community’s internal perspectives, and employing objectivity into thoughtful solutions. The cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz calls this Thick Description. Establishing a comprehensive understanding of the group or population’s behaviours, values, perceptions using empathy and compassion, while at the same time utilising an objective perspective to synthesize patterns and interpret insights for the appropriate solutions. It’s not enough to empathize, or create solutions separately, but rather merging the two to understand why and how we can create an impact.
Empathy is powerful. I am not against empathy itself, but I do think empathy can be shortsighted and misused. We need to step back and zoom out for contextual guidance, make the effort of understanding ourselves just as well as including those in question. What I hope for anyone reading this to take away is this: Know the limitations of using empathy alone in designing solutions and experiences so we can be mindful about our approaches. Design is about making decisions. Let’s start by recognising the need to change our attitude and reshape our mental models.
Special thanks to Emilie Bang Jensen, Maria Knutsson, Amy Lam and many others for their input and perspectives.