"You never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view - until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it."
– Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Any design process must begin with developing a deep understanding of people and the problem you are trying to solve for them. To truly understand the problem that you are trying to solve for the customer you need empathy. However, for many designers, the digital world can make it easy to default to behaviour which inhibits empathy. For researchers, for example, instead of meeting face-to-face, deeply observing behaviour and understanding emotions an easier option is to send a text, research online, or watch a video. This detachment can be particularly damaging to a customer-centric design approach. So, how, as practitioners do we develop empathy and embed it into our projects to provide impactful and successful solutions?
What is empathy and where can I get some?
In essence, empathy is the ability to understand, identify and share another person’s emotions, experiences, goals and motivations. The first step to developing and nurturing empathy is having a willingness to take the time to discover the deep-down thoughts and reactions that make another person tick.
Listening is the most important skill for the development of empathy – one that can be thought of as basic, but it actually takes practice to do well. As Indi Young, author of Practical Empathy, states "listening is such a transformative skill. It is what allows you to develop empathy – to understand someone's inner landscape. Listening is what brings new perspectives."
Beyond listening, empathy is built through experience. Researchers often use interviews to gather information on attitudes, expectations and behaviours, and to try to understand unconscious as well as conscious behavioural triggers. Interviews are important, but researchers must also try to experience the situations and problems their research participants describe. Only through this first-hand experience can designers really understand the nuances of the experience and begin to understand the cognitive and emotional states of customers.
How do I embed empathy into my projects?
1. Make no assumptions
Empathy is key in the design process, especially when you start expanding outside of your comfort zone to new languages, cultures, and age groups. If you try to assume what those people want, you’re likely to get it wrong.”
– Mike Krieger, the founder of Instagram
In order to deliver solutions that solve an underlying problem, rather than deliver incremental fixes, practitioners need to know the difference between acting empathetically and being empathetic.
With the proliferation of digital devices and channels, individuals and organisations now generate vast amounts of quantitative data. Advanced analytics and machine learning are helping us generate increasingly sophisticated insight from this data, covering customer behaviour, industry trends and what competitors are doing.
However, the what doesn’t necessarily explain the why, and it is easy to make assumptions about correlations or trends that may turn out to be spurious.
As data is used to plan marketing campaigns, improve customer experience, and develop new products and services, unsubstantiated conclusions and assumptions can have a damaging impact. Being empathetic, rather than acting empathetically, relies on investing time into uncovering the why as well as the what.
To avoid making assumptions it is best to spend time with your colleagues and work together to state them up-front at the start of a project. Keep the list of assumptions in a visible place and ensure that you all return to them regularly to check they haven't crept into your analyses. This recognition and visibility will reduce the chance that there'll be a ‘leap’ to an unfounded conclusion. Everyone makes assumptions, but it is a learned skill to be able to recognise them and distance them from your projects.
2. Mind the bias
No human operates with a blank canvas in their mind. Every researcher and designer will have pre-conceived ideas about what the problem is, what the solution is and what the customers are thinking and feeling. True empathetic practice requires suspending preconception and guarding against bias.
For researchers, bias can cloud, and sometimes invalidate findings. When carrying out design research with customers it is in our nature to want to connect on a personal level. A good personal connection can help research participants to open up and be more honest with what they say. A natural way of making these personal connections is to demonstrate empathy through spoken and / or body language – showing we know how they feel, jumping to answers, encouraging them in certain directions. This works well when on a date or meeting friends, but not in a research context.
For other practitioners, bias impedes truly customer-centric design. Jen Heazlewood, creative director at R/GA London states, "It has been shown that we do 98% of our thinking in our subconscious mind, this is where we store our implicit or unconscious biases."
Without realising it, biases can manifest themselves into our design decisions. Remember to guard against bias by developing tools, checks, and self-reflection to ensure impartial best practice.
As with assumptions, one solution is to write down your biases before starting the research activity. By putting these biases on the table you will be more aware of them, this activity encourages your team members to do the same. As a team, ensure that you collaborate and share ideas regularly and that the team is as diverse as possible.
3. Continually reinforce empathy
It can be hard to properly empathise on an ongoing basis with others who live very different lives to ourselves. We have a tendency to be selective in our perceptions and memories, and over time this selectiveness can shift our focus away from the nuance in the insights that have been gathered. It is common, for example, for people to grab hold of an idea or solution and forget how they arrived there. To safeguard against this, leveraging available tools is crucial. One of the main design tools we have to help us ‘re-empathise’ is the persona.
Personas are used to make business and design decisions. They enable decision makers to keep walking in their customer's shoes and more accurately answer the question ‘What will be best for our customers?’ Often, they are thought of as an advanced form of customer segmentation, one that adds-in some behavioural dimensions to enable more sophisticated personalisation of services. However, personas are actually empathy tools, used to reduce the impact of unconscious biases and can ensure that empathy doesn’t stop during the design process.
Ensure that you, your teams and your client refresh and reinforce empathy regularly using tools such as personas, which continually bring the customer and the customer's problem that you are trying to solve to the centre of the design process.
Always learning, always listening
Tom Gruber, product designer and co-founder of Siri teaches us that, "Empathy is a mindset that can be learned and improved with practice." It is a mindset that can be developed over time and one of the most important ways to enrich this mindset is through listening. Listening to people is the most important thing when developing empathy for those you are designing for. To quote Indi Young, "Going deeper than assumptions and opinions is what’s called empathy."
When you actively listen and dig deeper into behaviours and reasoning, you can develop a much more practical understanding of what a person is thinking. This practical understanding is the crucial factor in designing products and services that meet the needs of the customer and provide impactful, successful solutions.
Hannah joined EY-Seren in 2017, with experience in UX Design, Branding, Visual Design and Service Design. She has a First Class Honours degree in Industrial Design. She works on projects across sectors, most recently on future retail experiences and in Financial Services.