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Everyday Empathy

There has been a lot of talk in the design community about the value of empathy, meaning an understanding of the needs and behaviors of the people for whom we’re designing. The term is problematic because it conflates a basic human emotional response (empathy) with a process that requires critical thinking (evidence-based design). While we can talk about different types of empathy, a dangerous ambiguity remains. Without the critical thinking part, it’s easy to fall into the trap that designing things in a way that feels good is the same as good design.

Design problems are larger than the subjective experience of individual humans. While it is absolutely necessary to understand the lived reality of people to design for them, this is not sufficient. Sure, a lot of bad design starts from neglecting customer needs. Even more comes from failing to see the larger picture and one’s place in it.

Design problems are larger than how individual humans subjectively experience them.

Context—you’re soaking in it

A design project is a series of decisions. An organization is the social context in which decisions are made. It doesn’t matter how much individuals within an organization understand and value the customer perspective unless that understanding influences decisions that result in profitable, sustainable products. Design is an iterative process. Ideas need to run the gauntlet of critique and revision to make it into the world. And because this process involves humans—for now—some amount of ego, anxiety, and politics will get into the mix.

Cultivating empathy for customers you visit once and never have to talk to again is pretty easy. It’s far harder to maintain warm feelings for the people you encounter in the office kitchen. They take quarter donuts, leave cups in the sink, and worst of all, they might disagree with your ideas, or have some of their own. Even if you adore your colleagues, everyday empathy is a practice.

It is all too easy to find yourself attached to your own biases, in conflict with people suffering the same.

Over the years, I’ve worked with many, many organizations of all descriptions. I’ve seen smart, talented people with access to good information about their customers struggle to get their organizations to embrace new ideas or even make basic product decisions. The greatest barrier to getting good design out into the world is often the lack of mutual understanding—especially across disciplines. This manifests in reductive expressions of frustration and powerlessness:

“The CEO just wants to copy our biggest competitor.”

“The designers only care about visual polish.”

“The engineers just build the features they want to build.”

“I’m not a designer, so I don’t know how to provide feedback.”

“My VP ignores qualitative research. She just wants quantitative data.”

“I have no idea what marketing is doing. They just ask for things with no notice.”

These may sound petty, but we’ve heard them all, repeatedly. In the absence of real understanding and empathy, it’s natural to work from biased judgments about colleagues. It becomes easy to see one another as barriers rather than as allies. Designers and researchers are less able to influence decisions because they fail to understand the basis on which decisions are made. Everyone curses the way things are, but is too busy with what’s on their plate to try to change it and might not know where to start.

Solving complex design problems requires collaboration. Collaboration is hard. Humans are lazy, forgetful, creatures of habit who see the world through a wild haze of their own biases. This is true of all of us. Working together towards a shared goal requires overcoming our personal affinities and deficiencies and building rapport. It doesn’t happen automatically. Groups of people can work together for years and never truly collaborate.

As with most things involving humans, a lack of information isn’t the real problem. People frequently make decisions based on habit, hope, fear, the contents of their stomachs, and the stories they tell themselves. Then they use whatever information is available to back up their choices. They trust people they feel affinity with and are skeptical of others.

This has a real cost in terms of wasted time and bad decisions. I can’t tell you how many otherwise successful organizations I’ve walked into where people were either afraid of one another or afraid of being honest with each other. This feels bad and makes it hard to do good work.

In many cases, facilitating candid conversation has been Mule’s greatest contribution as a design partner. It shows in the end result. Our best portfolio pieces are merely the visible outcome of lively collaboration and confident decision-making.

Business empathy, even better than business drunk

Working with people different from ourselves is a learned skill, not an innate ability. And as social science shows, trying to bridge the gap with facts will never change anyone’s mind. The key is to value—truly value—and reflect the perspective of the people you want to influence. Whether you’re a designer working with clients, or part of an in-house team, you’ll be better equipped to frame your ideas in a meaningful way. And in turn, your ideas will be informed by a broader set of concerns. Diverse perspectives make for better solutions and arguments are fundamental to collaboration, but disagreements are only productive when everyone involved feels understood.

We start all of our projects by getting to know the stakeholders, the leadership, and the representatives of various disciplines on the client side. This is the most critical part of our Discovery work. The difference in the internal concerns and behaviors from one organization to the next is often much greater than between their respective audiences or customers. This work helps to ensure we are solving the business problem as well meeting user needs. Not only do we build rapport and trust with everyone whose input we depend on, these conversations allow us to reflect a cohesive view of the goals and challenges. This shared understanding creates common ground, between us and the client, but even more importantly across the client teams.

All it takes is a conversation

Even if you don’t have room in your schedule to do an extensive structured round of internal interviews, you can accomplish a lot with any time you have. Make a list of all of the people whose support you need and who will be affected by your project. Rank them in order of the amount of influence they have on the success of your project. Then, start scheduling talks, in the order of people who are most critical.

Your role and the culture of the organization should inform your approach. Scheduling a formal meeting and showing up with a notepad and an air of polite attentiveness might be unsettling for a peer on the engineering team, but totally appropriate for the VP of Marketing. The cardinal rule is “Don’t make it weird.” The more comfortable someone is, the more candid they will be. And you need candid.

Tell each person why you want to talk, but keep it open-ended. You want to hear their unfiltered perspective.

For example, you might say something like:

Hey, could we grab coffee for twenty minutes on Tuesday afternoon? I realized that I don’t understand your work as well as I should and I want to make sure that what I’m doing complements what you’re doing.

However you phrase it, you want to convey that your goal is to learn, not to judge or convince. And remind yourself that your goal is to learn, not to judge or convince.

The keys to getting an honest perspective are:

  1. Get them alone
  2. Butter them up

If you talk to someone in front of their buddy or their manager, you’ll get different answers than if you have them alone. And a great way to start is by acknowledging that their job is probably harder or more complicated than you realize. Not only is this true, but it will make the person you’re interviewing feel validated and valued. We all think our jobs are hard, but it feels really good to hear someone else say that.

“Thanks for taking the time to talk. I really appreciate it. I want to make sure that I’m not making any assumptions about what you do. So, I might ask some questions that sound basic.”

Whether and how you take notes depends on the context. If it’s not weird to record on your phone, do that—with explicit permission, of course. Or, jot things down in a notebook. To keep the mood casual, it might be best to give your undivided attention and then take a few minutes right after you talk to note the most important things you learned. Unless you’re doing a more formal organizational research process, these conversations don’t need to follow the same rules as user interviews. You aren’t just getting information, you’re also building a relationship.

Then, in as natural a way as possible, ask the following questions:

  1. What’s your title? How long have you been in this role?
  2. What were you doing before that?
  3. Tell me about the basics of your work?
  4. Walk me through your day yesterday.
  5. Who do you work most closely with and how do you work together?
  6. How is that going?
  7. Anything else I should know about what you do?

Don’t worry about asking the question verbatim. It’s more important to sound like yourself and not an autodialer. Just avoid asking leading questions or talking too much. If anything unexpected comes up that you want to pursue, just say “Tell me more about that.” Other than that, and making friendly human noises, shut up and listen. The shutting up is the hardest part.

If it’s relevant, and you have time, you might ask some questions about the specific project:

  1. What does success look like from your perspective?
  2. Where do you see the biggest opportunities?
  3. Do you have any concerns about this project?
  4. What do you think the biggest challenges are?

If you are talking to someone in leadership, the project-specific questions are often the more important ones to lead with. The answers will outline their overall vision for the project. Getting sign-off from leadership is much easier when you can explain how your work supports the story they want to tell.

(If you are part of the leadership, make sure you hire people who want to ask a lot of questions rather than those who claim to know all the answers.)

Don’t take any more time than you agreed on. You can always follow up later. And make sure to show your genuine gratitude.

Thanks so much for this. This was great. I understand what you do so much better now.

By the time you finish the conversation, you will know far more about the person you were talking to, and about the workings of your organization. Whenever you need to talk to them in the future, you can frame your conversation in terms of their hopes, fears, and particular areas of interest. You will know what’s in it for them, and that will make you a much more effective communicator.

And, the person you spoke with will have a much better opinion of you because you listened to them. They will think of you warmly as a smart and interesting person. Attention is a gift beyond measure.

When things get weird

Of course, organizations can be political, and your colleague, being human, may carry pockets of unknowable secret darkness. Sometimes, asking what seems like a completely innocuous question will elicit a defensive or even hostile response.

Some common defensive responses include:

  • “Why are you asking me this?”
  • “I don’t understand that question. It doesn’t make any sense.”
  • “I don’t feel comfortable talking to you about that.”
  • “No one pays attention to anything I have to say, so I don’t know why I should bother talking to you.”
  • “How much more time is this going to take?”

We’ve heard them all. These usually indicate an area of worry or anxiety, so perk up your ears, but remain calm.

The way you set-up the conversation at the beginning should take care of most of the potential objections, especially if you clearly express your ignorance and appreciation. Quell any impulse to sound smart or impress. That is not what you are here for. If you do get a defensive response, just reiterate that you want to understand their work. To avoid dead-ends, you can try saying “Why don’t you tell me what you see as the most useful thing for me to understand about your work.” and go from there.

You can also try redirecting by asking for advice about your own work. Most people love giving advice. The point is getting some insight into how they experience their work and building rapport. Anything you do to that end is useful. Don’t fret about getting detailed answers to all your question.

Conversations like this, just like more formal research interviews, are all about practice. The more you do, the better you will get at it over time. If things do go off the rails, reflect afterwards and think about what you might do differently interacting with the same person in the future. Awkward interactions also yield knowledge.

How to use what you learn

As you talk with your colleagues and other stakeholders throughout your organization, reflect on these questions:

  • What matters most to them and why?
  • What gets them excited about the work?
  • What frustrates them?
  • What sources of expertise do they trust?
  • Is there anything I am doing that could make their job easier?
  • Is there anything I am doing that could make their job harder?
  • How can my work make them feel validated and successful?

Even in the moment, if a meeting starts to go to an unproductive place, you can run through these questions in your mind to see if you can see the conversation from the other side.

Suddenly, you’ll be able to see what you’re doing with different eyes. Every choice you make will be more meaningful. Not only will you be better equipped to make a case for your ideas, you’ll have a more holistic view of the work. So, your recommendations will be better informed. This will save time and effort all around.

And the more people you speak with like this, the better you will be able to reconcile perspectives that might have seemed contradictory. Galaxy brain all the way!

The talking cure

A shameful amount of wasted effort and bad design comes down to poor communication and putting politics or personal insecurity above solving problems. It doesn’t matter how good anyone’s ideas are if they are overtaken by unspoken misunderstandings.

Just asking people you work with about their work sounds simple, but in my experience it’s almost magic. All of a sudden, Susan in engineering and Ted in marketing are real people whose hopes and dreams you can visualize, and it feels like you are working together toward shared goals rather than butting heads over scarce resources.

This is empathy in action. Everyone leaves weird stuff in the office fridge. The fun is finding out why.