Empathy: The educated designer’s word of choice. The solution to most design problems. The title of every design conference breakout session. This word is used so often in the design community, it is beginning to lose its meaning.
To designers, empathy translates to understanding your audience and their needs. We create empathy maps. We are taught to listen, observe and care. What are people saying, doing, thinking, feeling? With all the best intentions, we aim to see the users on the other side of our design. We try not to call them “users.”
Design thinking is, without question, valuable. Yet the process is defined by reaction. Empathize with your audience. Define a point of view based on their needs. Ideate solutions to those needs. Create prototypes based on those solutions. Test the ideas and refine based on those results.
We are so determined to empathize with our audience, we are overlooking a key truth to design: That our job isn’t only to listen and observe our users’ feelings and needs. It’s to shape them.
Empathic design, in which we observe the consumer and attempt to understand them, is considered an alternative to market research, in which we survey the consumer and conduct focus groups. The truth is that these approaches are similar in more ways than we’d like to admit. Both involve standing back and asking the consumer to tell us what's right. Both rely on the consumer reacting to whatever is in front of them. Keyword: react. On its own, empathy makes us passive designers.
“We are so busy measuring public opinion, we forget we can mold it. We are so busy listening to statistics that we forget we can create them.” Bill Bernbach
This is not to say empathy isn't important. By questioning our own assumptions and biases, we gain perspective. But empathy shouldn't solely define our work. Our personal point of view will come into play no matter how hard we try to set it aside. And it should. Creativity is the sum of all parts.
To a writer, empathy is a given. It’s what makes writing, writing. Without empathy, a writer’s work is soul-less, meaningless, unrelatable drivel. The same is true for artists – for any profession, really. Yet designers chase you down on the street, grab you by the collar, stare in your eyes while foaming out the mouth, desperate to spread the truth about empathy as if we’re the first to discover it. As if it wasn’t an obvious requirement for our work from the very beginning.
The key to user-centered design is that we are designing for human beings. Human beings who may think, feel and behave differently than we expect them to. While considering the needs of people is a nice start to better design, we are forgetting an important part of our job: Understanding the world they live in.
We are so zoomed into our consumers, observing them as if they are a new species from another planet, we fail to see the bigger picture. The culture, politics, philosophy, environment, TV shows, books, movies, art, fashion – the world at large. We will not understand what people need and want by simply observing them. We have to experience their world for ourselves. It's only then we can change it.
Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” We cannot understand the feelings of another without having experienced similar feelings ourselves. Without a perspective of our own, empathy doesn't mean much at all. And our designs won't either.