Issue #05: Empathy in design

Empathy is one of design’s most useful tools and that we are currently facing a deficit.

Empathy is one of design’s most useful tools and that we are currently facing a deficit.

Let’s not get into how design thinking is bullshit, or the differences it has with human-centred design.

A common key tenet in the various schools of thought simply values the value of empathy in design. And good design responds to problems.

Product design with empathy, for example, would require knowing your customers — not just what they want but also how they want to receive it.

Remember Google Glass? It’s a product case study that Slate called: “a solution in search of a problem. Creators of the product neglected to define and validate the users and their problems. The result was an overhyped product that offered no real solutions or value.

Empathy takes time and investment.

When done right, empathy can create value that underpins how individuals experience your products and services. Ensuring every touchpoint from user experience to actual product can lead to long-lasting and exponential returns.

And responding to real, but unexpressed and unmet needs, doesn’t only translate to monetary value. Designing with empathy can uncover deeper needs and root causes, which, if addressed correctly, may lead to profound change and impact. New markets can be created. Communities can be moved. Paradigm shifts can happen.

Companies like IBM take it further by building a design-minded culture in all its employees. That’s investing in some 377,000 employees, from business professionals to engineers, to think, work, feel like designers.

But it doesn’t take IBM to start a shift in the way we respond to problems.

Here’s the good news: we all have empathy. Neuroscientists say that it’s an integral part of our physiology that’s hard-wired into the way we are made (1, 2, 3).

This means that anyone can practise empathy in the way they problem-solve.

Keeping things simple makes it accessible and relevant in everyday application. And we all can make good out of it.


Quick Links

The four elements of design-driven culture.

Want to start small? Test these design-thinking tips in your business development strategy.

How to measure the ROI of design thinking.

Design-thinking can change company cultures.

Designing for a global marketplace with increasingly diverse users, cultures and environments can be complex. Here’s how to scale and sustain a human-centred approach that also takes into account various stakeholders.



on writing with empathy

Think copy isn’t important? Consumers read on various media platforms, are constantly blasted from advertising, and even talk to chatbots. Every word is copy that serves to differentiate your brand from the million others out there. Here’s more on content’s role in designing compelling experiences that truly connect with people.

content in AI?

“The impact AI is having on design is bananas. “Journalists, information architects, language scientists, content designers, copywriters, narrative and video game designers, script writers–these are the kinds of specialties converging to realize the power of AI.

We absolutely need systems thinkers as part of our design teams–from the macro customer journey down to the most atomic level of data–so we can shape the future of our economy.”

from The New York Times

While risky, Apple could prove possible coexistence of a media-like sensibility within a technology company.

“Apple has waded into the messy world of news with a service that is read regularly by roughly 90 million people. But while Google, Facebook and Twitter have come under intense scrutiny for their disproportionate — and sometimes harmful — influence over the spread of information, Apple has so far avoided controversy. One big reason is that while its Silicon Valley peers rely on machines and algorithms to pick headlines, Apple uses humans like Ms. Kern.”


On Being: MIRABAI BUSH / Contemplation, Life, and Work

on mindful emailing

“We devised that at Google. Oprah loved that. She put it in her magazine. It’s so simple, but like most mindfulness practices, it’s so simple, and we don’t do it. You just type out your email, either a response or an initiating email. Then you stop, take three deep breaths, follow your breath in and out, and in and out, and in and out. Then you read the email. You read it from the perspective of the person who is going to receive it.”

on social activism

“If I give up my anger, will I lose my motivation?” And “It’s my anger that keeps me working for this change.” What mindfulness, compassion practices, and others help with is the understanding that it’s not either acting out on your anger and being driven by it, on the one hand, or repressing it, on the other hand. But there is a way to notice your anger. Begin by noticing the sensations in your body and then notice what your anger is. See it and recognize it as energy in your body. But at the same time, hold compassion and equanimity for the situation because you’re more likely to be able to see what can be done to make that change if you’re not driven by anger, because it clouds the mind. It also makes communication with people on the other side of an issue really difficult. Whereas if you can cultivate equanimity and compassion for the situation, you’re much more likely to both see interesting ways to resolve it and to be able to act on it and communicate it. We did a lot of work with lawyers and judges and law students.”

listen as you walk to lunch


Quotes for Thought

Empathy becomes data. Designers are uniquely positioned to study the emotional contexts people are in when they’re trying to do something, and contribute that contextual data back to the system. If we were only paying attention to the black-and-white use case and not contributing color to those systems, our experiences would be very robotic. And that’s a future none of us wants.

Empathy is one way of thinking about the difference between art and design. If art is about exploring the possibility of human imagination and expressing this through physical media, design is about exploring the possibility of human imagination and connecting this to the reality of people’s lives. 

Could being too immersed in context create challenges for designing paradigm shifts?


Issue #03: Innovation isn’t an Idea problem

Issue #01: Females in the workplace