Designing With Empathy: A figure sits meditating in the woods by a pond

Designing with Empathy: Don’t

One of the things I love about working with Kim in our leadership coaching sessions is how an innocuous discussion can lead to my brain being turned upside-down. It happens more regularly than you’d think.

In one of our sessions a couple of weeks ago we were reviewing a job description I was working on for some upcoming roles at Tito. Included in this description was a statement that used the word empathy. Kim jumped on it — an immediate red flag.

I listened to Kim explain why she thought exercising empathy was a bad thing. I disagreed, but I kept quiet and listened (another skill that has been honed while working with Kim). When she was done I still disagreed, but decided to let it stew for a while. I reworded the job description in this case and we moved on.

More recently I was writing another job description, this time for a design related role. As designers we’ve been told from day one that you need empathy to be good at what you do.

Empathy is to see the real world through another’s eyes. In design terms, it means that to understand and discover needs of people so the designers can design solutions for them. In order to do that the designers should feel, give and receive unity with the users of the application.

Empathy and product design

This has always made sense to me. But Kim had thrown this design tenet into disarray and it was time I figured out where I stood.

Off to Google I went. I read and I researched. To be honest, I was fairly certain that while Kim had her opinions, in my area of product design, empathy would come out as a valid trait to have.

Spoiler: I no longer believe that. In fact, I believe empathy can actually cause harm.

Before I explain, we need to properly define empathy:

The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.

— Merriam-Webster

When was the last time you vicariously experienced somebody else’s emotions when designing an interface? Sure, you can understand where something might be frustrating; an illogical user flow, a dialog box that you can’t dismiss, another EU cookie banner. But does your mood change? If you were being empathetic, it would. Maybe it does, maybe not.

How about the foreign pensioner who has been living in the UK since she was a child and is told she has to complete an arduous online form or risk being ejected from the country she’s called home for over fifty years? (Hi mom!) Are you now stricken with anxiety and panic? If you were being empathetic, you would be.

As product designers, you want to keep a level head. You want to understand the problem and you want to build something that works. Going through the emotional turmoil of actually being empathetic with someone isn’t going to help you build something better.

Let’s take another approach. A common definition of empathy is “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes”. Okay. I’ll tell you what I can do, I can put myself in Fred’s shoes—the white 30-something from Accounts—when he wants to purchase a ticket for an event online. But can I put myself in the shoes of a gay Asian student? Or a 60-something black man? No. I cannot possibly have empathy in these cases as I have no lived experience. Can I research and speak to them to understand them better? Of course, but empathise with them? I don’t think that’s possible.

Obvious aside: this is why diverse teams are better teams.

Let’s go a bit deeper. How about designing something for a Neo-Nazi? Woah. What’s that I’m feeling? Anger, resentment. Who cares what they want? Not me. And herein lies the next issue with empathy. It is intertwined with your biases, subconscious or otherwise. I have an emotional, cultural and moral bias against hate groups. An extreme example but empathy simply isn’t going to work here.

Even at a more simple level empathy has its problems. Take Caroline who is having an issue with filling her credit card form. If I decide I want to try to step in her shoes and design something that works for her, what about the thousands of other people who will use that same form? Do I actually end up making things worse for them by empathising with Caroline?

This is known as the spotlight effect, favouring the one over the many. As Paul Bloom author of Against Empathy writes:

It’s because of empathy we often care more about a single person than 100 people or 1,000 people, or we care more about an attractive white girl who went missing than we do a 1,000 starving children who don’t look like we do or live where we don’t live.

Vox: The Case Against Empathy

Likewise when people who do bad things call for empathy, we should pause. Yes, I may be more likely to empathise with you because you look like me, but is that fair to do so? Or are you playing to my biases.

So is empathy all bad? No, in some cases it’s warranted. I want to feel happy for a friend if they come to me with good news. Fiction writers would also have a tough job if we didn’t have the ability to feel the emotions of their characters. But in design, in business, in society at large? Empathy can be problematic.

Many of the arguments against having empathy suggest compassion instead. That feeling where you can relate to someone’s situation, and then feel motivated to do something about it. Neurological studies have shown that empathy and compassion trigger two different areas of the brain. They are different emotions. And we therefore need to be precise when we talk about them.

But even having understanding and compassion as a motivator can be equally problematic. With decades of subconscious bias, am I ever really going to understand or be able to feel compassion towards someone who is from a completely different background, from a different culture. I’d like to think I could. I would try. But I need to be prepared to say that I can’t. And I need to accept that.

So instead, Kim suggests listening to a diverse set of voices and trusting their lived experiences. You can also gather the facts and count the numbers too if that’s possible. But ultimately a combination of the qualitative and quantitative will lead to a better and more inclusive decision making process. Much better than decisions based on empathy.

Food for thought. But I personally won’t be using the word empathy going forward when related to design, and I’ll be more mindful when using it in a wider context. Thanks for the knowledge bomb Kim.