Objectivity is the Most Important Design Skill

Objective Empathy in Human Centered Design

Joshua Dillon
May 30, 2019 · 22 min read

Empathy as a Design Attitude

Who is the Human benefiting from the Design solution?

Why Empathy is Confusing

According to Design Culture, Empathy is Everything.

Google Trends: “Empathy” — January, 2004 to May, 2019

Empathy in Human Centered Design Frameworks

How Empathizing with the Human Actor Drives Design Processes.

Empathy Map — Human Centered Design Exercise

The Purpose of Empathy

Empathy is meaningless without a meaningfully defined purpose.

Scenario Map — Human Centered Design Exercise

Empathy is a Tricky Subject — Hugs After

Types of Empathy as Framed by Human Centered Design Practice.

Affective Empathy (AE) — Emotional Empathy

Affective Empathy is the act of understanding the perspective of a human actor by emotionally identifying with their feelings or emotional condition. Affective Empathy identifies with the emotion of the human actor, and as a result, exhibits an emotionally-driven response.

Cognitive Empathy (CE) — Analytical Empathy

Cognitive Empathy is the act of understanding the perspective of a human actor by psychologically identifying with their mental model, point of view, or state of being. Cognitive Empathy provides Design practitioners with an analytical model to identify with the psychology, thought process, and methods of human actors to better understand their world view and associated perspectives.

Drawbacks of Affective Empathy

Common issues of Affective Empathy within Human Centered Design practices.

“I know the human, I am the human.”

“I have facilitated quantitative and qualitative research including the human. I have spoken directly with the human. I know intimate details about the human. I feel emotions on behalf of the human. I sympathize with the human. I have taken on the emotional role of the human. I am connected with the emotional perspective of the human. I know the human. I understand the human. I share the point of view of the human.”

Emotional Confirmation Bias

When taking on the emotional perspective of a human actor, Affective Empathy quickly becomes “Inherited Emotion.” By inheriting emotions, the Design practitioner assumes their own subjective interpretation of the human’s emotion, rather than objectively determining an interpretation based on known perspectives, or new observations of the human actor.

Emotional Justification

Affective Empathy creates a sense of emotional justification, whereby the practitioner operationally prioritizes the emotional representation of the human over the direct feedback of the humans themselves.

Affective Empathy “Sells”

When the feelings of the human are represented emotionally by the practitioner to a stakeholder in an effort to elicit an emotional response on which to base a decision of approval, Affective Empathy becomes a sales position.

Misattributed Solutions

Design practitioners who incorporate Affective Empathy into the Design process can often prioritize solutions incorrectly, as a response to the emotion, rather than the cause of the emotion.

  1. Is there a direct correlation between the value of the solution to the human actor and the emotional weight being placed on the advocacy of the solution?
  2. Does the weight of the practitioner’s emotional advocacy, in fact, represent the causal need on behalf of the human actor?

“I Am My Own Measure of Success.”

“I understand the human’s emotions. I know what will make the human happy. I know what the human wants. I find this solution emotionally compelling. I like it. I believe this solution will address my emotional need. I feel like this is the right decision. This is the decision that means the most to me, the arbiter of the human’s emotions.”

Inherited Bias

When Design practitioners come to an understanding of the emotional point of view of the human, they must not take on the emotional burden of that understanding, as it will shift “practitioner bias” into “emotion by proxy.”

Fallacies, Summarized

Affective Empathy erodes the value of objective reasoning by unnecessarily introducing an emotional component into an otherwise objectively driven framework. Because the objective representation of the human actor is the critical cornerstone of Human Centered Design methods, objectively responding with meaningful Design solutions should be the Collaborative Design team’s highest priority.

Benefits of Cognitive Empathy

The benefits of objectively understanding the perspective of the human actor.

Story Boarding — Human Centered Design Exercise

Tactical Cognitive Empathy in Functional Design

Design practitioners often use Tactical Cognitive Empathy when exploring Design options to meet specific functional needs. Assuming the perspective of the human interacting with the functional solution drives interaction models, data architecture, and platform strategy across a wide variety of system touch points.

Balancing Technical Solutions with Cognitive Empathy

Design practitioners are often challenged with balancing practical system variables against the needs of the human actor.

Cognitive Empathy in Design Delivery

Objectively determining ideal needs, goals, and outcomes of the human actor serves the function of Human Centered Design by clearly identifying, and continually prioritizing, the human measures of success for the solution.

Cognitive Empathy From Understanding to Solution

During different phases of the Human Centered Design process, the benefits of Cognitive Empathy shift to continue to meet the needs of the human actor.

Objective Empathy

The Fine Balance of Detached Attachment.

Objective Empathy in Human Centered Design

Architectural Assessment — Human Centered Design Exercise

Objective Empathy in Specialized Team Functions

As Design practitioners approximate and evaluate possible perspectives of the human actor, they must practice objectivity to effectively minimize their own relative preferences, biases, and world views.

Objectivity in Design Research

The role of Objectively in the Design Research process.

Establishing Objective Research Baselines

Objectivity minimizes subjective Research variables across different Design Researchers, effectively establishing a comparative baseline, from which to draw meaningful Design conclusions.

Journey Map, Research Artifact — Human Centered Design

Communicating Design Research Results.

Effectively communicating Qualitative and Quantitative results is a key responsibility of Design Research practitioners.

Objective Empathy — The Tactical View (tl;dr)

When balancing Empathy objectively, Human Centered Design practitioners are able to effectively identify causal needs, craft and evaluate ideal human outcomes, and Deliver meaningful benefit to the human actor more effectively than traditional requirements-led Design processes.

  1. Lead with Cognitive Empathy to understand the perspective needs of the human actor benefiting from the Design solution.
  2. Objectively determine the needs, goals, and outcomes that the human actor will use as a perceived measure of the solution success.
  3. Understand the human’s psychological view, causal need, or mental model, behind the emotional indicators without taking on the emotional burden of the human actor.
  4. Emphasize functional, tactical, or psychological observations of the human actor’s perspective over emotional interpretations.
  5. Objectively and directly address the actor’s measures of success by crafting solutions as a reflection and response to their needs, goals, or ideal outcomes.
  6. Apply Empathy Objectively as a method of mentally gauging the human actor’s anticipated response to practical Design Solutions.
  7. Apply Empathy during Design Research by understanding the actor’s perspective, while also observing the surrounding conditions, circumstances and scenarios which frame the context of the human actor’s intent.
  8. Objectively reflect on the practical, real-world, benefits of the Design solution as contrasted against the needs of the human actor.
  9. Continue to facilitate meaningful Human Centered Design conversations even after Design solution delivery.
As facilitated by this kitten.

…and now for hugs.

Empathy is more than just an attitude, tool, or Design-sales jargon.

Objectivity is the Most Important Design Skill

Design practitioners who adopt Objectivity as their foundational guiding Design principle employ many different types of techniques, exercises, and methods, to respond to the needs of the human actor. As a universally applicable attitude, Empathy must purposefully lead to Objective evaluation, conclusion, and action on the part of the Design practitioner, to truly benefit the human actor.

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Joshua Dillon

Written by

Design. Strategy. Tardigrades.

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Joshua Dillon

Written by

Design. Strategy. Tardigrades.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +786K followers.

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