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Empathy as the starting point for innovation

empathetic-street-team
One of the core principles of design thinking is its focus on human values at every stage of the process. And empathy for the people for whom you’re designing is fundamental to this process.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon an “Empathetic Listening Booth” at the Berkeley Farmer’s Market in Berkeley, CA, where I live. Living in Berkeley, I’m used to seeing all sorts of  er, interesting things at the local farmer’s market, but this one really caught my eye with its use of the term “empathy.”

The booth was an initiative of the Connection Action Project, an organization that teaches the principals of Nonviolent Communication, a communication process used in mediation and conflict resolution. As I learned from one of the people staffing the booth that day, the organization believes that empathy can lead to positive outcomes and solutions around issues of diversity, violence, and crime.

I was struck by how their notion of empathy as starting point for positive solutions is similar to design thinking. Design thinking is a human-centered methodology for fostering creativity and tackling complex problems through innovative solutions, and empathy is the lynchpin of this process. 

Empathy as a meme?

There have been several recent discussions about empathy in museum practice, ranging from Regan Forrest’s writings about empathy in the context of interpretation on the Interactivate blog to Gretchen Jenning’s write-up about The Empathetic Museum at AAM to Suse Cairns’s post on the Museum Geek blog, On the paradoxes of empathy.

I’m thrilled that empathy seems to be an emerging meme among my museum peers. The current discussions touch on the application of empathy at all levels of museums, from institutional policy to interpretive practices. One aspect of empathy that I think is missing in these discussions is how it is used and applied in the context of the design thinking process.

Empathy as a tool in the toolkit

In a controversial piece in the New Yorker by Paul Bloom, The Baby in the Well: The Case Against Empathy, the author posits that empathy is devoid of rationality and reason. Bloom suggests that we would better off if we were to supplant our inherently flawed empathetic sensibilities with reason (which Michael Zakaras sardonically calls “that most flawless of human capacities” in his excellent Huffington Post response, The Case Against the Case Against Empathy).

Bloom sees empathy as a inadequate tool for solving real-world problems and making touch choices. In design thinking, we never rely solely and exclusively on empathy to solve problems and make choices. It is, rather, one of the essential tools in the design thinkers tool box, part of a larger, systemic, integrative process that combines both qualitative and analytical tools. Empathy in design thinking is a powerful complement to the analytical phases of the process.

Zakaras writes in his Huffington Post response,

In our efforts to solve difficult social problems in particular, we rely too heavily on reason and numbers and econometrics, and not often enough on empathy. And again, by empathy, I don’t just mean our emotions, and I certainly don’t mean feeling sorry — that’s sympathy. I mean the ability to truly understand the perspective of others, and to use that understanding to guide our actions…

Indeed, a great deal of our international development efforts, as well as the now-trendy philanthrocapitalism, have failed precisely because we looked at numbers and didn’t listen to people. Because we designed great mobile apps without bothering to see if women in India would actually use them. Because we don’t often enough approach problems with humility and we seldom solve them by unlocking agency in others.

This notion of truly understanding the perspective of others and using that understanding to guide our actions is exactly how empathy is used in design thinking. In the design thinking process, before you jump to solutions (“we need a mobile app,” “we need to redesign ticket purchase experience,” etc.) you start with building empathy for the people for whom you are designing. You engage with and observe those people and understand their needs and what is important to them before you even talk about your end product or solution.

Designing for individual needs vs. market research

A question I often get when leading design thinking workshops is how can one make institutional choices and decisions based on the individual needs of a few select users/visitors?  In Suse Cairns’s recent post on empathy, she raised this question when she asked, “So, does planning better specific experiences based on particular visitors necessarily lead to a better outcome for all visitors?” She notes that “individual experiences seem more meaningful than abstract ones, but might not benefit as many.”

This where design thinking differs from market research, visitor surveys, and focus groups. In these more traditional research methods, the focus is on looking for averages and measuring need, want, and satisfaction across demographics. These are valid methods and make sense for many types of projects and instititutions. Design thinking, in contrast, is not market research, and it’s not a process for developing services and products that will appeal to a mass market of average users.

In the design thinking process, empathy is the starting point in a process for innovation. We start with the needs of individuals because designing for individual needs often leads to greater insights and inspiration. The best solutions come out of the best insights into human behavior. When we design for average users, we may make incremental (but certainly valid and important) improvements to existing products, services, or experiences, but we typically won’t end up  with radical insights, innovative game-changers, or re-definitions of complex, messy problems.

Design thinking is not always the right answer

Design thinking is not always the right process for every project or every institution. Just as I don’t advocate for an Agile development process for every software project, I don’t see design thinking—and the use of empathy—as right for every project, program, or organization. And the beauty of design thinking is that it offers a toolbox of  mindsets, skills, and methodologies that can be adopted, adapted, and incorporated, depending on the project, team members, and institution.

8 Comments »

  1. Empathy is one just one of our tools in the box. It is worth using empathy if you get an insight that can be applied to a more universal condition. The “ah ha” moments of really watching others, and then testing their responses to prototypes is quite fascinating the first time you use it for a problem.

    I think we need to learn more about what it means to gather data about visitors: to understand what and why they do what we do. What I continue to admire about design thinking is that it is offering many tools to help us get better understanding.

  2. Hi Dana,
    What a wonderful post. Thanks for pulling so much information together on the idea of empathy as a tool. I still think we have a lot of work to do in order to put an understanding of the perspective of others into the museum interpretive tech work, at least the work I do. I wish it was more ingrained into our thinking. I’d also like to know more about individual needs vs. market needs. Often when user testing or getting prototype feedback from visitors on projects, we respond to the top “deal breakers” or interesting ideas that come out of it. We don’t have the resources to develop to everyone’s user experience but try to respond to as much as we can handle. I wonder how that falls into the “individual needs” vs. “market research” camp. Awesome post. Thanks.

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