The Empathy Gap

Empathy is considered to be at the bedrock of good design. But what if how we’re thinking about empathy is wrong?

Empathy is certainly having its moment. Anywhere you look for writing on design and innovation and you’ll likely find a big role for empathy.

Designers are encouraged to empathize with their potential customers and see the world through their perspective. Apart from being a hefty task, much of what is written, taught or spoken about in design on empathy is simplistic, incomplete, and often simply wrong.

Apart from viewing empathy as a singular phenomenon (when it has at least two or three sub-types) many designers fail to see their own constraints in seeing how empathy applies to their work. A look at the neurobiological, personality, social, and systemic constraints suggests that designers might need to re-think what they mean when they embrace empathy as a driver of their work.

Empathy Types

Cognitive empathy is the ability to imagine what another person is thinking, while emotional empathy is the ability to imagine what another person is feeling. A review of much of the discourse on design and design thinking finds that this distinction is rarely made (PDF). Efforts have been made to enhance the understanding of empathy to improve our service design and the usefulness of our products.

Marketing leader and behavioural economist Rory Sutherland makes a persuasive case for how limited our rational thinking is and how little rational behaviour guides our daily choices. To Sutherland, marketing and good behavioural economics is really the science what other economists are wrong about (namely: rational decision making). His rules for alchemy are a guide to the illogical way we think and act in our own and our collective interests.

Sutherland and others are not suggesting that we can’t envision how others think, rather the issue is that we’ve created a social and emotional world that shapes our thinking and vice versa and that both of those perspectives don’t always align rationally.

Knowing how someone is feeling is also fraught with challenges, because it requires a situational and historical awareness of a person’s life and context. It’s also something we’re not particularly good at.

New research has looked at how well people determine what someone is thinking and feeling by their facial movements. While there is some evidence to suggest that those with higher emotional empathy can better articulate the feelings of others, we are generally quite poor at recognizing what people are feeling by their facial reactions.

Think AI will fix that? Research suggests its pretty bad at picking up emotional facial recognition cues, too.

Mindsets and Experiential Limits

We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.

Anais Nin (and others)

Among the greatest barriers to empathy is humanity itself. Our personality and experience both shape how we see the world and it is often confounding to believe that others might have a fundamentally different way of seeing the world.

Consider the paradox-like phrase:

There are two kinds of people in the world: those that believe there are two kinds of people and those that don’t

Take issues of moral relevancy. Some people see the world in terms that would suggest there is a right and wrong to certain things where others are more likely to see things on a spectrum. It is very difficult for people to see the others’ perspective when you view things in absolute terms or relative terms on matters of great importance.

These kind of issues creep into our blind spots when we consider design research. When we consider diversity: what types do we consider? For example, if your organization embraces diversity in its mission and practice — does that include political or ideological diversity? Would you include someone who doesn’t believe in the importance of promoting diversity (which is a way of increasing diversity).

It becomes nearly impossible to hold these different perspectives in our minds at the same time and still function. We find these kind of issues of conflicting values, perspectives, and barriers all the time in our work. Without realizing it, there is a tendency to empathize with a model of empathy that is often far too simplistic for our needs as designers.

One response is better research.

Better Design Research

Jon Kolko is one of the most realistic and thoughtful designers when it comes to understanding the potential and limits of empathy having spent years studying and practicing design research. One of the approaches he takes is looking at how different people think and feel from distinct groups and then compare how those realities both coexist at the same time.

It’s not ideal, but it sets out to recognize the likelihood that different groups will see the same thing quite differently and that there isn’t an ideal state, but multiple ones that co-exist. The issue is sense-making our way through the data by getting better at seeing it (the data) through the lens of many different perspectives.

Design research is what we undertake to better inform our work about how intended or potential users might use or perceive our product. The thinking is that the better we can design for the needs and desires — expressed, felt, conscious and unconscious — of people the more likely we’ll achieve some form of success with our product, service or policy.

The quality of our empathy (which is something we never get ‘right’ but, as Kolko puts it, can allow us to get closer to a truth) will be determined partly by the quality of our research. This is where so much of design falls flat. A half dozen interviews with members of a prospective user group will hardly suffice. Nor will ethnography or qualitative research that isn’t rigorous.

If you’re looking to critique design research — look at the quality of their design, analysis and synthesis, and implementation of their methods, not what they find.

This matters because stories matter. This post is being published on Remembrance Day in Canada and England, Veterans Day in the United States, when we try to remember not only what happened in the wars of yesterday, but why they happened.

Our ability to prevent the horrors of the past is partly determined by our ability to design our world differently. That is dependent our our ability to see, feel, think, and act differently. Empathy is at the heart of it all.

Lest we forget and lest we fail to empathize with those who lived through it.

(As a note about innovation and empathy encouragement. A Canadian initiative has sought to bring ‘alive’ stories of Holocaust survivors in recognition that those with firsthand experience of that horror are passing on. Survivors are being filmed in 3-D to create a holographic image that will be programmed to facilitate storytelling for generations to come. It’s a new take on a timeless practice of storytelling.

Photo of poppy by Milos Tonchevski on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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