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What does empathy in design mean?

Walking in your footsteps…

Empathy is a buzzword. Today, we have ‘Empathetic Marketers’, ‘Empathetic Managers’ and of course ‘Empathetic Designers’.  Everybody wants to use this trait at work. I’m sure, you do too. And why not? After all, as this report from The Most Empathetic Companies, 2016 suggests:

The top 10 companies in the Global Empathy Index 2015 increased in value more than twice as much as the bottom 10, and generated 50% more earnings (defined by market capitalization).

There seems to be a lot of consensus about the correlation between empathy and success, making it very attractive to get on to this bandwagon. Especially, if you are sharing the trip with people you admire. But then blindly following the bandwagon will not help. Do you understand what developing empathy entails? How does empathy work? And how can you establish empathy within your culture?

What does empathy means?

In fact as Alfred Adler says, it is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another. While this might be a little more difficult in practice, I’m sure you feel you understand the meaning. And, at this point, most people feel they have understood empathy and are ready to practice it. But have they? Really?

Empathy is hard-wired into our brains.

Did you ever have that sensation where you’re watching someone do something—serve a tennis ball, say, or get pricked by a needle—and you can just feel exactly what they must be feeling, as if you were in their shoes? Scientists have now come to the conclusion that this is the working of the ‘mirror neurons’ in our brain. This is how Dr. V. S. Ramachandran puts it in technical terms:

It turns out these anterior cingulate neurons that respond to my thumb being poked will also fire when I watch you being poked—but only a subset of them. There are non-mirror neuron pain neurons and there are mirror neuron pain neurons. So these [mirror] neurons are probably involved in empathy for pain. If I really and truly empathize with your pain, I need to experience it myself. That’s what the mirror neurons are doing, allowing me to empathize with your pain—saying, in effect, that person is experiencing the same agony and excruciating pain as you would if somebody were to poke you with a needle directly. That’s the basis of all empathy.

Apart from mirror neurons, humans have long been known to have a very robust ‘Theory of Mind’ which is essential to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one’s own. Around the age of three, humans start developing a Theory of Mind. These two aspects are the basis of empathy in humans.

Given that most of us posses the requirements, we should all be capable of empathy. Why, then, is it such a rare and in-demand trait?

We need an individual connection for empathy to be activated.

Scientists categorise empathy into three types which can be further subdivided as follows:

  1. Affective Emapthy
    • Empathic concern
    • Distress and regulation
  2. Somatic Empathy
  3. Cognitive Empathy
    • Perspective taking
    • Fantasy
    • Tactical empathy

Affective Empathy and Somatic Empathy lean on the mirror neurons and the somatic nervous system for activation and hence are best activated when you are in the presence of the actual event or with the person towards whom you generate empathy. And while cognitive empathy is supposed to work primarily on the basis of a Theory of Mind, it works best when you at least have some sort of a support for the thought. This could be a memory, a film, an article or even a story. Not everybody however can develop cognitive empathy without the mnemonic. So what are the various ways in which we can develop empathy both for ourselves and our team? Let us look at some of the ways one can develop empathy.

Developing empathy through personal experience.

This is the easiest way to develop empathy. When you yourself encounter a problem and find a way to solve it. SlackBot is a great example of this. The origin story of Slackbot goes like this:

When Slack launched, there were no direct messages or private channels, so CEO Stewart Butterfield created his own channel for note-taking, shooing people away when they came in. Eventually he wanted to direct message those notes to himself – and then realized that the self-directed direct message could be Slackbot.

Thus the empathy came from a personal unmet need which led to a great insight. SlackBot is not an exception. Almost everybody has a version of this personal pain-point story. And quite frankly this is the best way to sell the power of empathy.

Developing empathy through immersion.

One of the important aspect of design thinking is the practice of insightful observation that accompanies a user study or a field visit. In fact the Stanford D-School field-guide recommends the following three step approach to empathise:

  1. Immerse: Experience what your user experiences.
  2. Observe: View users and their behavior in the context of their lives.
  3. Engage: Interact with and interview users through both scheduled and short ‘intercept’ encounters.

This is probably the next best way for designers (or for that matter any team member) to develop empathy. Just head out into the field on a contextual enquiry or a field study.

Developing empathy through props and support.

We are not talking about physical props. But the real reason Persona exercises work is because it helps develop empathy within the team. Apart from personas, good user scenarios and empathy maps can be useful tools to help the team develop user empathy. However, creating an excellent tool requires a skilled craftsman. So no matter how detailed one gets, it is always possible to end up with emotionally bland outputs. And the personas and other tools may end up being quite ineffective. Which is why such artefacts are usually the result of an immersive study and are meant to pass on the experiences to stakeholders who could not be present for the immersive experience.

A process to develop empathy.

Developing and communicating empathy is an expertise that requires a few other skills. Here are some of steps required one the way to develop empathy:

  1. Abandoning the ego: Let’s be honest, as creators, we have a certain attachment to our creations. Be it our designs or the products we have built. However, in order to empathise deeply, we need to tame and put aside our egos. We need to become aware of the primary goal of empathy in Design Thinking, which is to understand and experience the feelings of others.
  2. Disinterested benefaction: As designers we should not have a preference for or against a certain group of people. While you may end up producing your application for the benefit of a smaller subset of users, one should start of by removing any biases. However there is a constant desire to be of assistance. This attitude will be more conducive in developing empathy.
  3. Imagine the user as your best friend: Once you have the attitude of equanimity that comes with disinterested benefaction, you should turn the attitude to a positive one of solidarity. Imagining your user as your best friend is a great way to do this. Imagine all your best friends, your favourite cousins, even your close family as the users you are serving. Sure your mother may not be the ideal user of your product, you can skip her, but surely there are enough and more friends and family who can be users of the software you are designing.
  4. Remember the last time your friend helped you: Think of real situations when your friends were your support. Financial support, emotional support or just being there for you.
  5. You now have the chance to repay the help they provided you: Now this is a chance when you are about to develop a software product that you can repay their help.
  6. Develop the wish to design the best features: You have that aspiration in you always, but just renew it.
  7. Develop the wish to avoid all pitfalls: Apart from wishing for the best, you also need to make sure your friends do not have to suffer poor design. No black patterns. No unhealthy habit hacks.
  8. With this mind re-look at the persona: With this renewed aspiration start a user study, relook at the persona, or design an empathy map. You will see the difference.

Don’t mistake analysis for empathy.

Finally, and most importantly, not everything user feature you come up with can be an example of empathy. For example, if you are developing an app where the users are very likely to use mobile phones and you come up with a feature that allows the app to work on mobile phones, that is not empathy. It is just creating user requirements. Not all user requirements needs to come from empathy. And empathy need not only result in developing good user requirements. Empathy is a lot more subtle. While in the beginning you may need to work on this trait, over a period of time, this would become second nature to you. At which point you can let go of all the props and processes and just let your gut do the thinking.

I hope as designers we all get there.

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