It is something we’re all taught from a young age, to have empathy. We teach our children to look at situations from the perspective of others, to walk a mile in their shoes. This raises the question why do we divorce ourselves of such notions when we step into work? Have negative work experiences made us callous drones searching for efficiency only?
The carrot for empathy design or empathetic design is financial reward, “by responding to real, but unexpressed and unmet needs, design empathy promised to bring financial reward.” (Battarbee, Fulton Suri, & Gibbs Howard, 2014).
By isolating unmet and unexpressed need, empathy sparks creativity. Empathy ignites innovation. Just practicing what we preach to our children will make us better problem solvers and spur innovation. “There is nothing like observing the person you’re creating something for to spark new insights…We’ve found that figuring out what other people actually need is what leads to the most significant innovations. In other words, empathy is a gateway to better and sometimes surprising insights that can help distinguish your idea or approach” (Kelley & Kelley, 2013).
“Therefore, designers are expected to focus on their empathic abilities in order to make interpretations of what people think, feel and dream, and to envision the experiences triggered by products or services. That [Cognitive Empathy] is the ability to assume another’s perspective, imagining his/her emotions, thoughts, feelings” (Devecchi & Guerrini, 2017).
Scholars break empathy into two distinct types: Affective Empathy and Cognitive Empathy. Affective Empathy includes Empathic Concern (or sympathy) and Personal Distress (emotional distress at the sight of someone else’s distress). Cognitive Empathy is divided into Perspective-taking (assuming someone else’s perspective) and Fantasy (projecting into the experience of fictional characters) (Devecchi & Guerrini, 2017).
Mirror neurons fuel empathy. “We are literally experiencing what others are experiencing through these mirror neurons, and that allows us to deeply, and literally understand how another person feels” (Weinschenk, 2011, p.147)
Unfortunately, empathy requires more than the capability of compassion. “People who cannot temporarily let go of their role or status or set aside their own expertise or opinion will fail to empathize with others who have conflicting thoughts, experiences, or mental models.” (Battarbee, Fulton Suri, & Gibbs Howard, 2014).
Even if people are willing to let go of their egos, empathy is not as simple as the analogy we tell our children. What appears on the surface to be empathy may be just a projection of our feelings and thoughts. It can help to think of empathy as a process complete with stages.
Empathy as a Process
The process of empathy, based on neuroscience, offers three essential elements: shared affect (automatic and unconscious), the ability to separate your experiences from the experience of others, and perspective-taking—your capacity to adopt another’s perspective (Bloom &Train, 2017).
Our unconscious proclivity is to share experiences with people we observe. “This means that you feel and have a bodily response similar to the feeling you observe or imagine in your client or design research participant” (Bloom &Train, 2017).
Separating Self from Other
Your life experiences determine how you interpret other peoples’ experiences. This is done mostly unconsciously. An example is hearing about a frustration someone had with a product, and you’ve had a similar frustration. “The automatic mirrored experience will be magnified by your own experience.” (Bloom &Train, 2017). This concept is known as self/other overlap.
This is the step we teach our children, taking a walk in another’s shoes. Only after being cognizant of the first two phases of the process, are you able to imagine yourself in the other person’s situation.
Empathy’s Sticking Points
When trying to use empathy be aware of the following sticking points:
- Confusing emotional contagion (or a tendency to express and feel emotions that are similar to those of others) with empathy
- Reacting to strong emotions with resonant emotion
- Mirrored experiences can cause ‘empathic over-arousal,’ euphoria or distress if the other person’s experience resonates with your own experience. “In each you become over-identified with your participant. Over-identification may also lead to empathic concern, akin to sympathy” (Bloom & Train, 2017).
To be able to drive innovation and creativity by empathy, accuracy is essential. You’re looking for context. In order to walk in another’s shoes, you need to know that other person’s mindset, biases, and prejudices—in short, his situation. To find those unmet needs and offer creative solutions, it is critical to empathize with both the person and his or her situation.
Empathy—like any skill—needs to be honed. Being introspective is important. Remembering your own context and biases will help prevent you from projecting your feelings on the other. The power that empathy has is it “allows us to understand the Other’s experience although without providing us a first-personal access to it” (Devecchi & Guerrini, 2017).
The understanding empathy gives us ignites insight and drives innovation. It behooves those in the creative industry to practice the same advice we preach to our children: walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.
Battarbee, K., Fulton Suri, J., & Gibbs Howard, S. (2014). Empathyon the edge IDEO.
Bloom, R., & Train, K. (2017). Design thinking and empathy generation. Cape Town: SyndiGate Media Inc.
Devecchi, A., & Guerrini, L. (2017). Empathy and design. A new perspective. The Design Journal, 20(sup1), S4357-S4364. doi:10.1080/14606925.2017.1352932
Kelley, T., & Kelley, D. (2013, November 8). Why designers need empathy. Slate Retrieved from https://slate.com/human-interest/2013/11/empathize-with-your-end-user-creative-confidence-by-tom-and-david-kelley.html
Weinschenk, S. M. (2011). 100 things every desinger needs to know about people. Berkeley, CA: New Riders.