The dilemma of designers’ empathy delusions

Jason Mesut
Dec 9, 2018 · 7 min read

Taking a bit of a reality check on how empathic you really are and for whom can help make you a more effective designer, not just an idealistic one.

I have been exploring competencies, qualities and skills of a designer over the past 13 years. During this time it’s been impossible to escape the E word.

Empathize is a step in the Design Thinking process.

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Popular Design Thinking hexagon stages

It’s a key attribute and skill, according to my 2005 poster

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The Perfect EA poster — read more here

It’s a key quality for modern day designers according to my workshops

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One of many word clouds from my workshops when I ask what qualities are important for modern day designers — read more here

It’s key to the emotional intelligence designers need.

Apparently, anyway…

Three delusions of empathy

I appreciate how unpopular this may make me. Please be kind and hear me out.

I have three challenges to the importance of empathy. To strengthen designer performance by battling what I feel is an ideal that is often delusional and misguided.

Two of my challenges are likely to be unpopular, and the third will probably be appreciated by many:

  1. Most designers are not actually that empathic to end users

Let me break this down some more…

Most designers aren’t that empathic

People’s understanding of the word ‘empathy’ is fairly varied.

To some it means ‘walking in others’ shoes’, or ‘feeling what they feel’. To IDEO in their Human-Centred Design Toolkit it means a “deep understanding of the problems and realities of the people you are designing for.”

But I don’t feel that many designers have this deep understanding; could walk in the shoes of a user or customer; and most really do not feel what others feel.

At best, many designers have developed sympathy for the people they design for. Appreciating their needs. Feeling for them. But not really feeling them. Sometimes this can become pity. Way too often in my experience.

I don’t feel this is such a bad thing. As long as we recognise that.

Empathy isn’t that valuable or unique for designers

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How much do doctors really empathise? How does it affect their performance?

Even if designers did feel (and practice) empathy, I am not convinced it is as valuable and as unique as many say it is.

Imagine a doctor. Imagine if she had high empathy. She would struggle to make decisions for the population she helps. If one of her patient suffered, she would suffer. The pain would impede the process of resolution. It’s why many healthcare professionals build up barriers to the emotions and the pain of the patients they serve. It helps them make better judgement calls.

I’m not saying a designer shouldn’t care. Often, they should. But i’m not sure that empathising over every user they meet can really be that productive or helpful.

I also don’t think that empathy is a quality or skill that is exclusive to design and designers. Do you? Do designers have the empathy monopoly? I think not.

Many people can have empathy and have very poor skills in other areas. Many designers can be extremely talented and change the world with very little care for others.

Designers should care more about other stakeholders beyond users

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A couple of panels from Pablo Stabley’s great comic series

This last point is one that many — when I mention it — generally agree.

Often empathy feels misplaced.

We value a user or many users’ needs over our colleagues’ needs.

This can be short-sighted. We will have to work with our colleagues. If we don’t understand them and their needs, how can we get them on side. How can we convince them? Or maybe even manipulate them?

The people that you work with every day are your allies. Even when they seem to work against you, you are on the same side. But if you don’t learn to understand them, you will find it harder to pull in the same direction.

Unfortunately, too many designers and UX folk might only muster sympathy of their colleagues. Maybe they are just ignorant of the contexts, needs and motivation of their stakeholders. Or worse still, maybe they know and they dismiss them. Or pity them.

Seek selective compassion

After throwing a spanner in the engine of Design Thinking and most designer rhetoric of the value of empathy, you’d think I had a clear answer around what to do. I don’t. It’s far more complex than that. But let me start on this journey and learn more from the resultant discourse from my provocation.

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Luis Arnal of Insitum

First of all, i’d like to reference a story told by Luis Arnal of Insitum at the Interaction South America conference in Floripa, Brazil, 2017. He was working late one night at his studio and was heading out the door.

As he went down the stairs he heard designers from another agency working through the night. When he asked them why they were there on a Friday night rather than enjoying themselves they recounted a story of a user they had met earlier that week. They told stories of the user’s struggles.

They told Luis ‘We have to do whatever we can to help this person’.

They committed themselves. They were past the typical feeling of empathy. Feeling all the pain and the context but not able to do much about it.

They had compassion.

They felt the pain, and the context. But beyond the mere feelings of empathy, it compelled them to act. It incited them to solve. It drove them to invest for the user over themselves.

I’d say this isn’t necessary healthy to have all the time. As much as having empathy for everyone is not. But when you get it, and you can inspire compassion in others. That’s when you can create some seriously good stuff. As long as you have the talent with you of course.

So, seek selective compassion. And then make sure others’ feel it like you do, Get your team to be driven to change.

Connect with the wider system

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Some different system elements of a mobility service I was working with

I try to connect with stakeholders and the wider system as much as I can. Being user-only focused is a fatal misunderstanding of the notion of user-centredness. You can read about connecting to the wider system here.

In a few of my old talks, I often refer to one of the ‘c’ words when it comes to being more effective as a designer. The connection with clients, stakeholders and users, or partners, is critical to progress. So try to hear their side. Feel what they feel. Connect with their emotions, their needs and their motivations.

And it’s also important to empathise with the system. A dynamic mesh of sub systems, actors and processes etc. It’s not a human only thing, but it is a complex web where understanding many different types of humans and their interconnecting dynamics is key to design success.

Invest your emotional energy wisely

Whatever you choose to do, it’s too easy for designers to take their time away from what matters. They can waste enormous emotional energy in areas where they can’t move the needle .

I believe designers invest emotional intelligence into many areas of their work. But I also believe they need to invest their time and their emotions more wisely. Thinking through the changes that are inevitable. Considering the unforeseen, or the unintentional consequences for people beyond mere users.

Targeting your energy

So, I have started introducing a new template into my workshops.

And forgive me, it’s a little bit of an early work in progress.

It starts with levels of empathy — a continuum if you like — between ignorance and compassion.

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A little template I use to get people to map their levels of empathy against different stakeholders
  • Compassion: Driven to act based on your appreciation of others’ feelings

And then outlines some key stakeholders that you might invest (or deliberately not) your emotional energy for.

  • Users and/or customers

People map how much they they invest emotionally for each stakeholder group. And then where they feel they should shift that investment.

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Identifying the shift you need to make

It’s another self-reflection exercise. No clear answers. But knowing what you should do, can always help.

Want to find out more, follow the series

If you want to learn more about the Shaping Workshops I run, and what I have learned over the years, follow me, or read some other articles in the Medium Publication.

Keep your eyes peeled for another post tomorrow.

Shaping Design

A series of frameworks to help you reflect, direct and…

Jason Mesut

Written by

Creating positive connections between people and technology. Heading up a new design and innovation consultancy called Resonant

Shaping Design

A series of frameworks to help you reflect, direct and develop yourself or your team

Jason Mesut

Written by

Creating positive connections between people and technology. Heading up a new design and innovation consultancy called Resonant

Shaping Design

A series of frameworks to help you reflect, direct and develop yourself or your team

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