Empathic Design: What is it good for?

Examining the role of empathy in the design process

Note: This article addresses the shortfalls of empathic design, but is not an argument for its abolishment. It is based largely on the work of Paul Bloom and his book Against Empathy. Though Bloom’s book is concerned with empathy and its role in defining morality, the thrust of his thesis can be applied to the design process as well.

A strange thing happened at the end of Star Trek: Into Darkness. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I will spoil the image you might have had of a man who spent a career surrounded by fire, blood, and knives: I cried. A lot. And as the tears fell on the theatre’s concrete floor, a well-worn veneer washed away with them.

As a butcher, I spent years projecting a persona of a grizzled brute — a tough task for a near-sighted, rail-thin, millennial. But months before the tearful mid-week matinee I discovered I was going to become a father. And from that point forward I wrestled with new and confusing emotions that were previously buried in some dark corner of my cavernous heart — a byproduct of a powerful new form of empathy that infiltrated my system like a virus.

As I was starting my career in product design I was told my newfound perspective was invaluable. After all, in order to generate thoughtful solutions for your users, you had to have some sort of deep empathetic understanding of their pain points. But to blindly follow such an edict seemed reckless, especially in a field where you were encouraged to question everything. So I set out to uncover the meaning of empathy, and its potential pitfalls.


Defining Empathy

What does empathy really mean? It’s a fuzzy word that is thrown around in design talks and stakeholder meetings with little regard for its implications. Must we inhabit our users’ lives to intimately understand their problems? If we do, how deep do we need to dive? In order to have any meaningful discussion around the topic, we must first define our terms.

Paul Bloom, in his book Against Empathy, defines empathy as “the act of coming to experience the world as you think someone else does.” This is what was happening to me in the half-empty movie theatre. I was not just seeing Captain Kirk. I was Captain Kirk. And I was experiencing all the responsibility and pressure one endures when commanding the Starship Enterprise.

This form of empathy is what makes movies enjoyable — we become the characters we are watching. But removed from entertainment and close personal relationships, such intimacy clouds our judgement when we attempt to make objective decisions. Bloom illustrates these shortfalls by presenting an experiment conducted by C. Daniel Batson when he and his team confronted their subjects with the following scenario: a terminally ill girl in need of urgent care:

“C. Daniel Batson and his colleagues did an experiment in which they told subjects about a ten year old girl named Sheri Summers who had a fatal disease and was waiting in line for treatment that would relieve her pain. Subjects were told that they could move her to the front of the line. When simply asked what to do, they acknowledged that she had to wait because other more needy children were ahead of her. But if they were first asked to imagine what she felt, they tended to choose to move her up, putting her ahead of children who were presumably more deserving.”

Forced to reckon with the girl’s suffering, the subjects gave too much weight to her circumstance and were no longer able to make an objective decision. The scenario highlights what Bloom argues is the “spotlight” effect of empathy — an inability to recognize and address the needs of the many when focusing on the one:

“…[S]potlights have a narrow focus, and this is one problem with empathy. It does poorly in a world where there are many people in need and where the effects of one’s actions are diffuse, often delayed, and difficult to compute, a world in which an act that helps one person in the here and now can lead to a greater suffering in the future. Furthermore, spotlights only illuminate what they are pointed at, so empathy reflects our biases”

One of the biggest hurdles we encounter as designers when conducting user research is overcoming our own biases. We have all fallen prey to the urge of uttering “uh-huh” when a user can’t find the button we are convinced is the root of all of our app’s usability issues. But if we only resonate with users that reflect our own experience, we are designing for ourselves. And sometimes we’re too close to a problem that we can’t even do that.

As Dan Saffer illustrates in his excellent Medium post “In Design, Empathy is Not Enough” we can become so close to a problem that we no longer see a way out of it. In designing for diabetic patients, Saffer and his team immersed themselves in their lives. Nightmares ensued — some designers began to feel they were contracting the disease themselves. It wasn’t until they stepped away and took an outsider’s perspective that they were able to provide a valuable solution. As Saffer argues, if empathy was some sort of magical elixir, there would be no need for product designers in the first place — everyone would generate their own solutions.


Perhaps this is not what we think of when we champion the magic of empathic design, and what we are really thinking of is what psychologists call social intelligence, or, as Bloom refers to it: cognitive empathy. This flavor of empathy is less engrossing than the form illustrated in the examples above:

“…[T]here is another sense of empathy, or, to put it differently, another facet of empathy. There is a capacity to understand what’s going on in people’s heads, to know what makes them tick, what gives them joy and pain, what they see as humiliating or ennobling. We’re not talking here about me feeling your pain, but rather about me understanding that you are in pain without necessarily experiencing any of it myself.”

Though less susceptible to the pitfalls of the former, cognitive empathy is not without its drawbacks. In the wrong hands it can be employed to damage — the most powerful of bullies understand intimately what makes up your nightmares.

As designers, we shouldn’t have to worry about falling into this trap. But if you do find yourself drawing upon people’s fears to create solutions, take a moment to read Mike Monteiro’s A Designer’s Code of Ethics,” and go back to the drawing board.


Going Forward

As designers, it’s vital that we continue to question our process. Do we have enough information to make meaningful user personas? Or are we just drawing pretty pictures on the whiteboard? Empathy should undergo the same scrutiny, because in design there should be no sacred cows.

I am not arguing for the abandonment of empathy in the design process. Such a declaration would ignore the nuance of product design, and empathy itself. But we must use caution — if we are not careful about empathy’s role, we will drift further from the solution we are searching for, or worse, create a solution for one