Magnetic Notes
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Magnetic Notes

How to use empathy in design without killing millions of women

When Boston Dynamics released a video of Spot, their robotic dog, being kicked they wanted to show how stable it was.

What people actually saw was something in distress and flinching.

Because empathy?

The video started a debate on the ethics of human/robot interactions with people asking whether it was ethical to kick a robot.

Our instinct to empathise with Spot is weird because Spot isn’t alive and doesn’t feel pain. Whatever we are feeling is not being felt by Spot, it’s entirely constructed in our own mind — we’re imagining the feelings of something that doesn’t have any.

If you’re a designer and rely on your ability to empathise with others as part of your design practice this poses problems. How do you know what you have intuited is actually right? Isn’t it dangerous to make design decisions on phantasmagorical inferences?

But the Spot conundrum isn’t the only problem with empathy. In this article I look at some of the other big issues facing designers when they try and use empathy.

Psychopathic empathy

We generally think of empathy as being a nice thing, something that caring people do to help others. It’s Hallmark cards, pastel colours and unicorns leaping through rainbows. But there is another way to look at it.

Without empathy, the cheetah wouldn’t know how to catch the impala

From an evolutionary viewpoint empathy may have developed to help predators. A cheetah that can accurately predict the movement and actions of an impala is much more likely to eat.

In short, empathy is a predatory tool. When we understand and can predict the action of another we can use that to our advantage. This type of empathy is often called cognitive empathy and it is about understanding the ‘world view’ of someone else.

But cognitive empathy is only one of two separate and distinct elements that make up empathy. The other is termed affective empathy — the ability to feel the emotions of another.

Generally, understanding of someone’s worldview is twinned with the ability to feel their emotions. But they don’t have to be. And that’s when things get interesting.

People who can understand the world view of another with no emotional connection are psychopaths. If the cheetah were human we’d be considering custodial sentences.

Torches of freedom

In design this distinction matters. It could be argued that a lot of advertising is psychopathic. We use very clever people to understand what makes others tick and then we use that insight to sell them sugar, fat, alcohol and a 1001 other unhealthy things.

Torches of Freedom. The cigarette as a symbol of liberation.

In 1929 Edward Bernays paid women to march in the Easter Sunday Parade whilst smoking. He wanted women to overcome the association of cigarettes with ‘fallen women’ and prostitution. And start to associate smoking with women’s liberation and aspirations for a better life. But most of all he wanted to sell more cigarettes.

Bernays knew the women he was appealing to. He knew their frustration with old fashioned attitudes. He understood the taste of freedom they had experienced when gender roles had become more relaxed in WWI.

In a moment of bleak marketing genius he renamed cigarettes Torches of Freedom and they became a key symbol of liberation. Advertising showed pictures of thoroughly modern women doing thoroughly modern things with a ciggie hanging out of their mouth. Sales boomed. Smoking came to define the modern woman.

You can find a great collection of adverts for cigarettes here.

Edward Bernays is lauded as the grandfather of PR. He is also responsible for the deaths of millions of women.

(If you’re interested in Bernays (and Freud) there is a brilliant and entertaining documentary you should watch by Adam Curtis— The Century of the Self.)

This may seem like an obvious piece of advice — it is not OK to use your empathetic super powers to sell people cigarettes, fast food, gambling products, crippling credit or anything else that may harm them. You may not be killing people directly but you’re supporting a type of psychopathic behaviour that does.

OK so you’ve promised not to be a psychopath. Well done. Now all you need to do is employ your empathetic super-power for good? Right? Well, kinda…. sadly it’s a bit more complicated than that.

The individual? The crowd?

There’s some evidence to suggest that we’re hard-wired to be empathetic.

The recent work of Vittorio Gallese and Alvin Goldman in biology has identified mirror neurons in macaque monkeys. These neurons effectively ‘pair’ the monkeys with each other.

When they see another monkey grip something the same neurons fire in their own brains. They literally feel the action of the other monkey. A similar function appears to work for humans too. When we see the facial expression of someone else we feel their emotion.

This ‘pairing’ mechanism is widely believed to be responsible for our ability to feel and understand the actions of another. It is the biological reason for empathy.

What emotions do these eyes show?

In the standard test to understand how empathetic people are the emotional ‘pairing’ mechanism is examined. We are asked to look at pictures of people’s eyes and select the emotion that they correspond to. Have a go. In the picture above what emotion do you think the eyes are expressing. The answer is at the bottom of the article. And you can try a much longer version of the test online too.

Now try and read the emotion of this crowd.

Impossible isn’t it? You can maybe guess at some of the individuals, but not the whole group.

It’s actually a picture of people waiting for the White House Christmas tree to be lit. So I’d hope the overall mood was celebratory.

This poses a problem. We’re hardwired to be empathetic with individuals…. but not crowds.

When we design we often need to design for a group of people and not individuals. But it’s hard to present lots of data from lots of people without it feeling flat and uninspiring. It’s hard to care. If you’ve ever waded through a long research deck you’ll know what I mean. It’s a bit meh.

This is why personas have become so popular as a way of presenting research findings. We find it much easier to understand the needs of an individual (even a fictional individual) than an entire group of people. Psychological reality rules.

Empathy doesn’t travel well

About 5 years ago I was in Newcastle working with a group of young women who were 3rd generation unemployed. I was trying to understand how to design services that might support them to find work and build better lives. On my first day with the group I started a conversation about their aspirations for the future.

There was a prolonged silence…

One of them eventually talked about a boyfriend. Another about the hope that the council might find her a house so she could move out of her parents house and setup home with her daughter.

Then one said she wanted to be a footballer’s wife.

It was a depressing moment. I felt I’d horribly misjudged the situation. Their horizons felt so diminished it was hard to know where to start.

Later, back in my lovely liberal London bubble, I recounted the experience to friends.

“How stupid” they said, “a footballer’s wife?”

In recounting of the experience I’d failed to communicate the point. The young woman who wanted to be a footballer’s wife was probably the most ambitious, the one motivated to do something about it.

What was very clear to me in the room was very difficult to explain to others. The context of the conversation was hard to accurately describe. The hundreds of small non-verbal cues were hard to articulate.

The spirit of the young woman was hard to bring to life.

Make research a team sport. Ensure that everyone working on the project is involved in research. Take them to meet users, do research with them and involve them in joint analysis sessions.

This is the one single thing that I believe separates good design practice from great. If you do nothing else do this.

Walk more than a mile in another woman’s shoes…

In 1979, aged 26, Patricia Moore spent three years visiting 116 different US cities dressed as a 80 year old. She wore her grandmother’s ill-fitting shoes, glasses that caused her vision to be distorted, weights on her arms & legs to restrict movement and earplugs to reduce her hearing.

Patricia Moore as an 80 year old

She also created a number of personas that ranged in terms of mobility and status to understand the issues faced by older people from all walks of life.

Her work helped establish some of the key ideas in design thinking that we now take for granted, the importance of designing for specific people rather than some generic white couple with 2.3 kids in their 30s, for example.

Patricia’s insights have led to the redesign of many common household products. She helped Oxo design the Good Grips range that they sold for £237M in 2004. There is clearly a business case for empathy.

How the Good Grips Peeler evolved, inspired by Patricia Moore’s experiences [Source]

Patricia is often seen as the patron saint of empathy. Her dedication to understanding the needs of others is exceptional. Her success stems from the sheer amount of time she spent walking in the shoes of other people.

So why don’t we do all research like this?


A couple of years ago Magnetic, did a project for MORE TH>N, a UK-based insurance company, to improve their customer retention. We spent time with customers and staff trying to understand their experiences and what we could do to improve them.

One of the most striking insights was how the claims processes felt very unempathetic. Even the terminology, claims processing, had a whiff of the mechanical about it.

This upset customers who felt making a claim was another hurdle to overcome in a period of their life when things were bad. And staff felt they were asking clinical questions when they instinctively just wanted to help.

We inverted the ‘claims’ process and turned it into a help service. Customers were given help and assistance regardless of whether they were covered or not; we’d put them in touch with trusted local builders and offer advice, even when they weren’t covered.

Among other things, we changed the first question the call centre asked from “What is your membership number?” to “How can we help?”

It worked.

The Net Promoter Score for declined claims went from -12 to +97. A swing of 100 points. The changed approach also became a key message in the firm’s TV advertising.

Five principles for using empathy in design processes

Empathy is one of the most unusual super powers we have. Use it carefully. Here are my five principles for making sure that we use empathy well in design processes.

#1 Don’t be a psychopath

Never use your empathetic super power to support projects you think are morally dubious.

#2 Make research a team sport

Research isn’t the sole preserve of researchers. Ensure that everyone working on the project is involved in research. Take them to meet users, do research with them and involve them in joint analysis sessions. Teams that jointly do research design better solutions.

#3 Pay attention to people’s behaviours

Spend lots of time observing people. Behaviours often speak louder than words. When you walk alongside your users you learn more about them than simply talking to them.

#4 Co-create

Engage your users at each and every stage of the design process in the creation of the service. This is particularly important if your users and your design team do not share similar experiences.

#5 Present data in psychologically realistic ways

Maintain the humanity of the people you’re designing for. Bring them to life with videos, photos, audio clips. Users have names and faces and individual experiences. It’s easier to design for real people than abstracted data presented in dreary bullet points. If you have to aggregate data use personas to maintain the a sense of real humans.

Magnetic is a company that uses design research and prototyping to understand customers, helping clients to build better products. We work with organisations such as Lloyds Bank, Royal Society of Arts, the Parliamentary Digital Service and William Hill.

If you enjoyed this, you might enjoy “The First Rule of Pricing”.

Finally — show a little empathy and hit the green heart below. This is Rupert’s first Medium post. It would make him very happy.

ANSWER: the eyes are panicked.



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Rupert Tebb

Rupert Tebb

Strategist working in Service Design. Specialise in the creation of services that help people change their behaviour. Co-run @ServLabLDN, a meetup and podcast.