Designing Beyond Empathy

Create solutions that are meaningful, helpful, and relevant

Illustrations by Jonathan Mueller

I love to run on the weekends. I get out of my house early and go for a few miles. One of the joys of urban running is all the different neighborhoods I pass through at a very human speed. I start by running past my neighbors: The house on the corner with the Bolivian math teacher and his wife who works for the FDA and then the park, filled with kids playing soccer and shooting hoop. I run past the skate park, where teens show off while their parents watch nervously, and on my final stretch, I notice the small homeless encampment set up at the highway underpass before I head back home.

As a designer, it’s my job to design for all sorts of people, some like me, and more importantly, many who are not. It’s my responsibility to remember that even though we might share a geographic proximity, our interpretations of space, objects, brands, and symbols are as varied as the individuals who use and interact with these things.

Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about empathy. A quick search in the New York Times alone comes up with stories on the relationship between empathy and politics, neuroscience, technology, and lo and behold, design thinking. But when it comes to using empathy as designers, we have to do more than what is colloquially thought of as a “feeling.” Walking in another person’s shoes sounds easy enough, but moving past a cursory understanding takes time, effort, and an openness that is difficult to achieve. We need to inhabit the lives of the people we are designing for, understand their interpretations, and develop a deep respect for their experiences, perspectives, and culture, in order to bring something meaningful and useful to market.

Empathy as more than compassion

I once had a client who wanted to create a better way of infusing medicine for people with hemophilia (a genetic disorder that prohibits blood from clotting). The client wanted us to help them understand and improve the lives of these patients. Starting at a very early age, people with hemophilia have to insert a small needle under their skin several times a week to prophylactically infuse medicine. When my team met with the client after fieldwork to discuss our findings, the client questioned why, after spending so much time observing their days and infusion habits, we didn’t spend more time solving for the emotional and physical trauma of daily needle infusions. They were clearly compassionate. We asked how many of them had ever tried to infuse themselves. No one raised their hand. What we learned early on in research was that the act of infusing is not only second nature because it happens so often, but for the majority of people, there is little to no fear of the needle. Many can do it one-handed, while on their phone, paying no attention at all. It’s a habit, for some, even a ritual, not a sacred and scary moment like our clients imagined. The client wasn’t solving for the right problem. While the compassion was there, there was also a lack of connection to their customers. Having compassion for a group of people can be a catalyst for change, but it doesn’t necessarily result in user-centered solutions.

Experience + understanding builds empathy

Even physically experiencing someone else’s living situation isn’t enough to design with empathy. I have had all sorts of experiences to simulate someone else’s living experience, from donning weighted gloves and scratched glasses to emulate driving like an elderly person to living on the streets for weeks to experience what it’s like to be homeless.

While this is a great technique to better understand how people engage with the physical world, this approach alone focuses too much on the immediate visceral experience, and perhaps more problematically, my interpretation in isolation.

Fieldwork, going to the places where people are living their lives to conduct research, is where we start to really connect with people. We learn about who they are, participate in their activities, and uncover their needs. We witness emotional responses, body language, context, and their use of space. By connecting with individuals in the field, we’re able to collect their stories and perspectives. We learn things like testing for diabetes often makes people feel guilty and sick and provides a disincentive to test. We learn how people with mental illness can live productive and full lives and are often shamed only by the stigma others associate with it. We learn how people lose faith in their ability to retire, and as a result, don’t bother contributing to a savings plan. Creating empathy with respondents requires more than listening to them, and more than simulating their lives. By interpreting the world through the lens of their values, history, religion, and culture, we can begin to design for them with them in mind.

Exploring the sweet spot for synthesis and problem solving

Turning empathy into action

It’s what we do with what we have learned from empathizing that leads to valuable designs. In order to solve a problem, we have to find the sweet spot between understanding from the person’s perspective and an objective outsider’s perspective. Renowned anthropologist Clifford Geertz calls this Thick Description. Without going too far down the design researcher’s rabbit hole, let me explain why the concept of Thick Description is so valuable when it comes to design.

On the one hand, there is Emic, which is the full understanding of the individual or community’s internal organization, behavior, and overall perception of the world. Go too far in this direction and we run the risk of “going native,” losing objectivity and distance from what it is that we’re learning. The problem with this is that it can become impossible then to come up with novel or “obvious” solutions because we lose sight of existing constraints. (For instance, our cultural norms like marriage having to be between a man and a woman and higher education as the only way to success were not challenged for years.) On the other hand there is Etic, which takes an outsider’s perspective, assuming everyone should act and think like us and disregards what’s most important to the group we’re trying to solve for (especially problematic when the majority of designers represent a fairly homogeneous population). The problem with Etic is there’s little chance of designing a successful product or service since we have disregarded the workflows, attitudes, roles and what’s generally accepted by the group.

In the sweet spot, or Thick Description, the research and design teams understand the population they are designing for, have both compassion and empathy, and also a deeper and richer perspective on the group’s motivations, histories, and values. At the same time, they bring an objective vantage point.

For most designers, the goal is to create something useful, emotionally resonant and functionally beautiful that solves a problem in a unique way. Conducting robust research allows us to have empathy. Employing objectivity and thoughtful interpretation allows us to synthesize that research and arrive at rich insights. Finding just the right sweet spot in our perspective empowers us to not just create solutions, but to understand why we’ve arrived at specific solutions. Because knowing what we’re really solving for is just as important as how we’re solving for it.

As I think about my weekend runs and return to their distinct signs, smells, and colors in my mind, I am continually inspired by their individual flavor. It’s a great reminder that as a designer, I have the opportunity and obligation to improve the lives of others in ways that solve for their specific needs, not mine.

Special thanks to Jonathan Mueller and Jessica Herman for helping bring this piece to fruition.