We’re doing empathy wrong: Here are 3 ways to do it better.
We talk a lot about empathy in business today. In design and innovation, we often hear that user research is done to empathise with the customer to really “walk a mile in their shoes.” I remember using this exact phrase time and time again in my Design Thinking workshops, always asking for audience members to clarify the difference between empathy and sympathy.
Most of are pretty good at trying on the user’s shoes, but the problem is that we’re not very good at getting out of our own heads. Sure, we might gain new perspective from an applied empathy exercise where we simulate going through the world with glaucoma using scratched up glasses (salauno), or learn a lot about a doctor’s preferences and struggles in a usability test for a prescription app (Doc Doc). But it is really hard to leave behind the thoughts, values and feelings that are uniquely ours, not the user’s. Too often we still process new insights through our own lens, not the user’s. It’s super hard not to! This results in new products and services that are created more for the design team and company leaders than the end customer.
As an anthropology undergraduate, we learned that ethnography is not free from partiality, a post-graduate in behavioural science confirmed this with an infinite list of psychological biases that we all fall victim to when making decisions, getting to know someone new, and forming opinions. I have found that a healthy amount of self-reflection alongside secondary research helps me to uncover and understand my own blinding preferences that cloud my ability to successfully empathise with my customers.
Here’s what I ask myself before and throughout the process of user research, and its consequent synthesis:
- What imagined communities are my users a part of? What imagined communities am I a part of?
- Where am I becoming judgemental of the customer? Another way to think of this is, where do I find myself labelling the user’s behaviour or beliefs as bad/wrong? How is this a reflection of my own insecurities, preferences, or beliefs?
- What surrounding factors (upbringing, economic realities, education, culture, etc.) have contributed to the formation of the user? My own formation?
Try going these questions yourself and with your team next time you are working to put yourself in your customers’ position. It might require a little more patience and effort, but it will yield deeper and truer understanding of your customers. Know thyself, know others!