Nowadays, platitudes about empathy in Design are thrown around like confetti. The interest in empathy in Design is recent. However, the social sciences have studied empathy for centuries.
Adam Smith, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, defined empathy as the self-awareness that connects an individual to another. This mutual connection allows the individual to judge the moral propriety of action “congruent with the perceived welfare of another”. In Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, two boys temporarily swap lives. One is the Prince of Wales, and the other is a son of a beggar, thief and abusive alcoholic. The young prince’s brief experience as a pauper made him a wise and just ruler because he understood firsthand the plight of common people.
Here is how I think about empathy.
Empathy is the starting point for discovering and understanding the users’ needs. Visualizing from someone else’s perspective colors information with context and enables one to pick up nuances that are not readily apparent to those lacking empathy. Empathy enhances the ability to see, receive, understand and remember information.
Empathy is always a spectrum, with the user one end, and the designer on the other. The closer the designer gets to the user, the higher the likelihood that he/she will build a product that the user finds usable and desirable. When it comes to shaving, I feel like I’m one with the user. When it comes to designing a lady’s handbag, the user and I are galaxies apart!
Empathy in design requires deliberate practice; empathy should be applied in moderation. Too much, and the designer risks losing focus. Too little, and the designer’s depth of insights will be shallow.
Empathy and analytical thinking are antagonistic and binary. When one is on, the other wants to be off. Statements like “we only make data-driven decisions” are anathema to me. Quantitative metrics tell only one side of the story. The qualitative is equally important. Designers need to be aware about the mode they are in, and be able to switch back and forth. Only then can designers simultaneously feel deeply and think rigorously.
These are the reasons why I’m practicing empathy. This is why I’m an empathy acolyte, and firmly believe that all creative endeavors should start with empathy.
Until next time,