Everyday Empathy

Erika Hall
Oct 19, 2017 · 10 min read

Design problems are larger than how individual humans subjectively experience them.

Context — you’re soaking in it

A design project is a series of decisions. An organization is the social context in which decisions are made. It doesn’t matter how much individuals within an organization understand and value the customer perspective unless that understanding influences decisions that result in profitable, sustainable products. Design is an iterative process. Ideas need to run the gauntlet of critique and revision to make it into the world. And because this process involves humans — for now — some amount of ego, anxiety, and politics will get into the mix.

Business empathy, even better than business drunk

Working with people different from ourselves is a learned skill, not an innate ability. And as social science shows, trying to bridge the gap with facts will never change anyone’s mind. The key is to value — truly value — and reflect the perspective of the people you want to influence. Whether you’re a designer working with clients, or part of an in-house team, you’ll be better equipped to frame your ideas in a meaningful way. And in turn, your ideas will be informed by a broader set of concerns. Diverse perspectives make for better solutions and arguments are fundamental to collaboration, but disagreements are only productive when everyone involved feels understood.

All it takes is a conversation

Even if you don’t have room in your schedule to do an extensive structured round of internal interviews, you can accomplish a lot with any time you have. Make a list of all of the people whose support you need and who will be affected by your project. Rank them in order of the amount of influence they have on the success of your project. Then, start scheduling talks, in the order of people who are most critical.

  1. Butter them up
  1. What were you doing before that?
  2. Tell me about the basics of your work?
  3. Walk me through your day yesterday.
  4. Who do you work most closely with and how do you work together?
  5. How is that going?
  6. Anything else I should know about what you do?
  1. Where do you see the biggest opportunities?
  2. Do you have any concerns about this project?
  3. What do you think the biggest challenges are?

When things get weird

Of course, organizations can be political, and your colleague, being human, may carry pockets of unknowable secret darkness. Sometimes, asking what seems like a completely innocuous question will elicit a defensive or even hostile response.

  • “I don’t understand that question. It doesn’t make any sense.”
  • “I don’t feel comfortable talking to you about that.”
  • “No one pays attention to anything I have to say, so I don’t know why I should bother talking to you.”
  • “How much more time is this going to take?”

How to use what you learn

As you talk with your colleagues and other stakeholders throughout your organization, reflect on these questions:

  • What gets them excited about the work?
  • What frustrates them?
  • What sources of expertise do they trust?
  • Is there anything I am doing that could make their job easier?
  • Is there anything I am doing that could make their job harder?
  • How can my work make them feel validated and successful?

The talking cure

A shameful amount of wasted effort and bad design comes down to poor communication and putting politics or personal insecurity above solving problems. It doesn’t matter how good anyone’s ideas are if they are overtaken by unspoken misunderstandings.


Mule Design Studio

Designed to work.

Erika Hall

Written by

Co-founder of Mule Design. Author of Conversational Design and Just Enough Research, both from A Book Apart.

Mule Design Studio

Designed to work.