Wicked Problems: Building Empathy by Designing “With”

Jon Kolko
Jon Kolko
Oct 7 · 8 min read
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For most of the history of design, the designer has enjoyed the role of creator and a quality of authorship. A designer makes a thing, and that thing is produced in large quantities, distributing the designer’s vision, ideals, and values — cultural influence — into the world. In fact, these days, a design and its creator’s values can be introduced into the digital world in a day or even an hour. Given the power of designer as author, critique is usually aimed at a product’s characteristics: how it looks, how it provides value, how easy it is to use. Outside of small circles of design historians, few people critique the values projected by the designer. Does the community of users share the designer’s or company’s values? What’s the framework for assessing a design solution’s values, anyway?

A movement of participatory design, or “design with versus design for,” attempts to address these questions of value and ethic.

Participatory Design

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Liz Sanders has extended participatory design research by focusing on the actual mechanisms by which participatory design can occur. She describes how design toolkits can be used to extract creativity from non-designers. These toolkits — pieces and parts that participants can arrange to create their own rudimentary design solutions with little or no craft-based experience — are known as Generative Tools, and contain two-dimensional parts such as paper shapes and photos or three-dimensional parts such as forms with Velcroed knobs and buttons.

These toolkits are given to participants who are asked to express their feelings visually about a given experience. The role of the designer shifts to facilitator — extracting creative information from “regular people” — and translator — helping to identify meaning, insight, and design inspiration in that information.

Cultural probes, introduced by Bill Gaver in 1999, are a mechanism for directing participants’ influence into the design process. The probes offer an intimate view of the emotional qualities of regular people — they do not tell the designer what to make — the designer is left to interpret these qualities and make sense of them. These probes often take the form of artifacts that a participant completes, like a disposable camera or a journal. Designers work with the completed artifacts to reflect on or tell stories around them. Some designers will ask participants to explain the inspiration for a given photograph, journal entry, or other creative effort. Others — such as Gaver — avoid asking for explanations because they, “value the mysterious and elusive qualities of the uncommented returns themselves…Rather than producing lists of facts about our volunteers, the Probes encourage us to tell stories about them.”

Cultural probes literally “probe” a given culture, poking at society and trying to extract inspiration through narrative. Because the input comes from non-designers, this becomes a form of “designing with,” as the designer’s role is one of interpretation and facilitation rather than visionary. This is still a fully creative endeavor on the designer’s part, but consumers temper and inspire the results.

The design views presented by Ehn, Sanders, and Gaver offer a comprehensive story of designing with rather than for people. Ehn promotes including end users in the entire design process, particularly when they are politically, economically, or socially disenfranchised. Sanders promotes giving toolkits to end users, so they can express their aspirations and dreams without formal craft skills. And Gaver promotes probes as a way of extracting emotional and experiential insight from end users. Each technique is a theoretical framework of participatory design, as it changes the way designers think, but it’s also a pragmatic framework in that it changes designers’ activities and methods.

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These frameworks challenge both designers and the status quo of design activities in corporations and consultancies. Designing with also introduces difficult questions relating to a designer’s potential sphere of influence and impact. Presume that you are designing in the context of homelessness, and you have embraced a philosophy of designing with. You seek out people who are homeless to learn as much as possible about how they feel so you can empathize with their situation.

How do you start? If you simply approach a person — homeless or otherwise — on the street and ask them how they feel, you won’t get very far. Social norms dictate a different approach for engaging in conversation, and topics like feelings and emotions are usually off limits in casual encounters. To share their feelings, people need to be comfortable speaking with you about such intimate topics, and that comfort relies on trust and respect. So, to find out about the homeless, you’ll need to spend a lot of time with them and establish trust.

Assuming you can establish trust, you’ll probably soon encounter another social barrier: you are an outsider, so no matter how pure your intentions, you’ll be viewed as part of a socio-economic (and often political) system. That is, when designers attempt to engage in social change, they are often viewed by the community they are trying to help as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Fundamentally, you need to establish an empathetic tie to the people in the community you are affecting.

The Challenge of Establishing Empathy

To empathize with any degree of useful rigor requires a great deal of time, patience, and emotional energy.

Empathy is not the same as understanding, which is what most ethnographic tools provide. These tools help to understand context — to uncover details related to work flow or to learn vocabulary related to a particular group of people or activity. Although useful, particularly for introducing positive usability changes or adding new features and functions to a product, understanding is not enough when designing with. To compassionately feel what it is like to be another person, one must identify with their culture, emotions, and style. Unlike understanding, empathy is frequently illogical and circumstantial. And this is its real value for a designer because experiences involve not only the pragmatic (activities, goals, and tasks), but also the conceptual and fleeting (such as feelings, irrationality, and culture). And methods that attempt to formalize empathy can help a designer not only design for utility and for practicality, but also for emotion and behavior — the underpinnings of interaction design and the most important aspects of design in culture.

To visualize the challenge of empathy, consider a spectrum with you on one side and your next-door neighbor on the other. It would be impossible to fully empathize with your neighbor. To feel everything they feel, you would need to actually be that person. But you can get close. You can talk to them to understand their views on the world. You can observe their actions. You can go to work with them to see what sort of decisions they make. With enough resources and tenacity, you could actually become a version of your neighbor for a short period — you could even dress in the same style of clothing, attend the same events, and hang around with the same people. But your neighbor is the unique sum of genes and experiences. Their perspective of the world has been shaped over the course of their life, and that perspective affects their every thought and decision.

Empathy is formed through immersion. A designer who would foster empathetic connections with a group will spend many hours getting to know the individuals and trying to discover, without judgment, the cultural and social norms that exist within the group. Gaining the trust and respect of a group almost always requires some form of equitable value exchange. Unlike many formal anthropological activities, this immersion is not passive. Instead, the designer will strive to become part of the group by participating in activities, conversations, and job routines. In some cases, designers may augment their appearance to become closer to the target audience. In extreme examples, designers may actually impair or alter their bodies to better experience another person’s reality. For example, Patricia Moore wanted to feel what it was like to be a seventy-year-old woman. To gain knowledge, Moore could have spoken with people in that group, but she was looking to build empathy. So, for three years, she augmented her body to age it.

“I learned that putting little dabs of baby oil in my eyes would fog my vision and irritate my eyes. The look was that of eyes with cataracts…we decided to tape my fingers to simulate the lack of movement which people with arthritis must tolerate…it seemed a good idea also to restrain my movement in walking…we put small splints of balsa wood behind each knee.”

Moore’s technique for gaining empathy with a population was as time-consuming as it was comprehensive. And although other empathy-gaining methods are less involved than becoming another character, they all take time, patience, and immersion.

Mariana Amatullo, vice president of ArtCenter College of Design’s Designmatters program, explains that:

students best at designing for social impact are skilled at problem solving and problem-seeking

She goes on to explain that, “they tend to take opportunities as moments of possibility in what Paul Light refers to as ‘the Peter Pan phenomenon — that is, if you believe you can fly, you will fly.’ In this sense, I find a measure of entrepreneurial intent to be essential at succeeding. With that comes the skill of perseverance, flexibility and empathy. All translate into individuals who are confident embracing constraints and operating within a context that tolerates ambiguity.”

This article is an excerpt from the book Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving by Modernist Studio COO and Austin Center for Design Founder, Jon Kolko. The full text is available for free here.

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Perspectives on Design by Modernist Studio

Methods, Innovations, and Futures

Jon Kolko

Written by

Jon Kolko

Chief Operating Officer, Modernist Studio

Perspectives on Design by Modernist Studio

Modernist Studio is a strategy, experience design, and innovation consultancy that designs and builds the future across products, services, experiences and teams. Learn more: http://moderniststudio.com/

Jon Kolko

Written by

Jon Kolko

Chief Operating Officer, Modernist Studio

Perspectives on Design by Modernist Studio

Modernist Studio is a strategy, experience design, and innovation consultancy that designs and builds the future across products, services, experiences and teams. Learn more: http://moderniststudio.com/

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