Empathy Shoes Blue

Will empathy make you a better designer?

My first understanding of the word empathy began with my second grade teacher’s concrete explanation—empathy is about being in someone else’s shoes, having a walk around in them to get a sense of the world from their point of view.

Empathy it turns out, is complicated—much of it has little to do with our conscious minds. Whether or not we’re able to express empathy for someone depends on our innate, lizard brain perceptions of others as either belonging to the same group we belong to (us) or people belonging to an outgroup (them).

Empathy has arrived on the tech scene as a new skill that every startup and design team needs to get ahead. Empathy can solve design problems and diffuse tense team interactions. Take these examples that I just made up:

“It’s really tough for our team to get this project done when Jan cancels meetings constantly at the last minute.”

“Try having some empathy for Jan!”

“It seems like we’ve really built this system in the best way we can, but people are not figuring it out.”

“Empathize with the user!”

“Our business is really struggling. How can we help our designers understand the business goals behind our products so that we make more money?”

“Empathy makes us better designers. Let’s get some empathy training stat.”

These scenarios feel ridiculous. But they’re not far off from real professional advice being circulated lately. There are entire methodologies for design being created around the idea that empathy is the silver bullet. Is there some truth in them? Will empathy make you a better designer? Is that all this design stuff is really about?


That looks unsanitary

First, a quick review. Design is the intentional solution to a problem within a set of constraints. Those constraints are made up of people’s habits and the larger context that the designed Thing will exist within. To design something well, you need to completely understand the set of constraints. That set of constraints and the audience you’re designing for exists out in the world. That context is different from the one you’re working from at your standing desk. Understanding that people’s habits and behaviors are real constraints to your design is critical.

Gaining a complete understanding of this context is possible through user interviews, ethnography, comparative research, user testing, and reading what other people have written. All of these represent activities that will help. All of these are real work and don’t rely on an innate capacity for warmth or an interpersonal dynamic. You don’t have to be Deanna Troi to solve a design problem.

You don’t have to be Deanna Troi to solve a design problem.

See if you can figure out who the empath is

See if you can figure out who the empath is

All of the activities named in the previous paragraph can be learned. Taking on other people’s perspectives is a practice just like any other and involves asking the question, “In this situation, how does this person feel?”. This is fundamentally different from asking, “How would I feel in this person’s situation?” or inhabiting someone else’s pain as if it were your own.

As humans we’re pretty limited in the amount of empathy we can apply (See: No, You Can’t Feel Sorry for Everyone). Behavioral experiments also suggest that stress impacts empathy. A stressed out mouse will show decreased signs of empathy for its cage-mates. And mice—like people—express empathy for other mice who are their cage-mates. Neuroscientists have identified that there’s a specific class of steroid hormones, called glucocorticoids which impact who we perceive as “us” enough to evoke empathy. When secretion of this hormone is blocked, we can’t feel empathy. That was the tldr version; for more information see: Mice with an increased glucocorticoid receptor gene dosage show enhanced resistance to stress and endotoxic shock.

Empathy has nothing to do with design and has no place in a discussion about professional skills. In fact, too much empathy can be a bad thing and can blind you from solving a hard problem just from a physiological perspective alone:

…if a distressing empathy-evoking circumstance increases your heart rate, you’re less likely to act prosocially than if it decreases it. Thus, one predictor of who actually acts is the ability to gain some detachment, to ride, rather than be submerged, by the wave of empathy.

— Robert M. Sapolsky

Bad design is the result of poor collaboration; it’s not evidence of an empathy deficit in the world. For that, you don’t have to look much further than the front page of every American newspaper. The world is a hot mess. Let’s save our empathy for the big stuff. But I digress.

Look at any badly designed website and you can see the territory battles that led to that website’s unfortunate existence in the world. These battles happened not because the team lacked empathy but because they failed to collaborate. Everyone brings their own set of expertise to a design project. Communicating clearly about these different points-of-view is hard. Clear business goals or organizational priorities can help because collaboration can only work when people have a shared goal.

Bad collaboration

Bad collaboration happens when people talk past each other and lack a shared goal

And while we’re at it: collaboration (lucky for us) doesn’t require empathy either. Collaboration depends on you valuing other people’s relevant opinions to find a shared goal for guiding the work. And I hope you can value someone’s opinion without relying on your lizard brain to identify them as belonging to your “we.” If collaboration did rely on empathy, we’d be seriously screwed. There are probably some crazy people in your office. People like this guy. This guy had to work with other people at Google. More to the point—other people had to work and collaborate with him. If collaboration required really inhabiting his point of view, his team would have to reconcile 1950’s values in 2017 before writing a single line of code together.

valuing your audience’s point of view and being able to collaborate with your team are critical to design work

Conflating design research and collaboration with empathy is sloppy. Bad design is a failure to meet business goals or to make the case for something well designed within an organization. This happens in conjunction with not understanding the constraints upfront. Both valuing your audience’s point of view and being able to collaborate with your team are critical to design work. In short, researching and understanding constraints and learning how to collaborate are real things you can do to become a better designer.