Bringing the emotion back to empathy

We often talk about empathy as a core tenet of the User-Centered Design process, but in practice, it is extremely challenging to clearly define empathy and how one might use it to make design decisions.

I often see empathy being applied by designers in a somewhat casual manner. With the best intentions, we attempt to rationalize the feelings of others (our users) and then apply those assumptions as rationale for our design decisions.

Alexander Dawson stated the following in an early article on empathy in design:

The value of empathy is the ability to understand your audience, give them what they need and make a site as well produced as possible

But is simply understanding others is not enough. For empathy to be truly effective, we must make a concerted effort to connect with the emotional state of others as well. As one of the most powerful drivers of human behavior, emotion gives us the key to unlock the valuable insights we need to design experiences.

What is empathy?

There are two definitions of empathy commonly referenced by behavioral researchers:
“Cognitive empathy,” refers to our ability to rationalize the emotions of others, and “affective empathy,” when we physically respond to the emotional state of others with feelings of our own.

The problem with cognitive empathy alone is that the attempt to understand another’s point of view without internalizing their emotional state can result in detachment. This is known as the “too cold to care” phenomenon and can result in indifference rather than caring.

By practicing affective empathy, we engage mirror neurons within the brain programmed to fire when we sense another’s emotional state. This enables us to better attune ourselves to the experiences of others, which in turn helps us better understand how they might experience the world – or at the very least, the part of the world we are building for them.

Applying affective empathy

There are many methods to better attune ourselves to the emotional state of others. Here are four methods you can use to bring affective empathy into your design process:

Practice Mindfulness

The term “mindfulness” refers to a psychological state of awareness. By focusing awareness to our own experience we become more attuned and sympathetic to others’ mental states. A study of therapists who were experienced meditators (Wang, 2007) found that they scored higher on self-reported measures of empathy than their colleagues who did not meditate. 

Introducing meditative practices into your design process can have a many powerful benefits. In 2007, I co-facilitated the Oakland Sustainability Jam, a 48 hour workshop applying service design thinking to sustainable themes. Throughout the workshop, we had mindfulness instructor Nichole Proffitt take us through a series of meditative exercises. The simple act of taking time to slow down and reflect had a transformative impact on the creative dynamic of the teams at the Jam. The energy seemed to shift from tension and conflict within groups to calmness and understanding - teams were better able to focus and create together. Mindfulness contributed the empathy the team needed to relate to one another better.

Shift your perspective

A 2007 study demonstrated that perspective-taking resulted in empathic concern, an important instigator for helping behavior. Making a concerted effort to move from simply rationalizing emotions to actually feeling them can have a dramatic influence on your ability to empathize with others.

This shift in perspective takes practice. I often find myself using the imagined feelings of a persona as the rationale for a design decision. I might say something along the lines of: "Sally is a motivated millennial who is frustrated with the complexity of her student loans, therefore we must do A, B and C..." But realizing this is not enough, I have started to take this one step further.

I take a moment to feel those very emotions within myself. I try to feel Sally's frustration with her loans. Her ambivalence towards managing finances. Her distrust of lenders. Her fear of debt. Her embarrassment with not knowing more about what to do. 

This act of affective empathy enables me to tap an entirely different area of my brain. It is a simple cognitive hack that opens up a new way of approaching problems and connecting with the needs and emotions of those I am designing for.

Be aware of your bias

We have a number of cognitive biases that impact our ability to effectively empathize with others. 

The hot-cold empathy gap, for example, makes it harder to identify with the experiences of others if we do not share a similar emotional state. There is also a bias towards assuming the world is just and therefore people get what they deserve (Stephan & Finlay, 1999).

We even have a bias blind spot -- the inability to recognize that we suffer from the same cognitive distortions and behavioral biases that plague other people.

There is no easy answer to overcoming our cognitive biases. The best we can do is be aware that they exist and to pay attention to our own assumptions and how unconscious bias may influence our perspective.

Play games 

There is research that indicates that playing prosocial games increases our empathy towards others.

Gaming trains the imagination to create new contexts to understand the word around us and in doing so, also trains us to be more empathetic. I have also found that playing games forces us to suspend our disbelief, and in some ways our sense of self, while we imagine ourselves in these new contexts. In doing so, play can be a powerful tool to engender empathy.

At Comrade, we brought in a team from LifePlays to facilitate a workshop on Improv to improve our communication and interactions with clients (and each other). That training had a lasting impact on how we worked together by creating a safe environment for playful interaction.

On your next assignment, before you dive deep into rationalization, take some time to play with your team. Even something as simple as tossing an invisible yellow ball to one another can engage your imagination and improve your empathy.

Final thoughts

Empathy connects us to the experiences of our customers, but empathic design takes attention and focus. By practicing mindfulness, shifting your perspective, remaining aware of your biases and introducing play and imagination to your process, you will see a shift in your empathy from something purely cognitive to something more affective (and effective).

Additional Reading

Empathy Requires Experience

Empathy at Work

Why Designers Need Empathy - Tom & David Kelley

Spark Innovation Through Empathic Design

Empathic Design

Practical Empathy by Indi Young


Image by Quinn Dombrowski under CC