July 21-22, 2021 / Online

Empathy is Not Enough

Written by Empathy is Not Enough

August 18, 2017


I'm here to talk a little bit about empathy and how I don't think empathy is enough for designers to do great work. And I wanna start off by saying, I'm probably one of the younger people in this room. But I do remember when I was still a teenager contributing to the internet and making things for the internet. And back then we were called web masters and graphic designers, and who remembers things like Neopets and GeoCities? You know, we were thought of as these people in the basement cracking away. And I think design has come a long way from that.

In recent years, we're more called human centered designers, and we now incorporated human centered processes into our work. And that's something to be really proud of. However, these days we say things like, "Let's build with empathy" and "Tech has this empathy gap" and "empathy is this the Holy Grail?" What does that really mean? And are we imposing our definition-- Are we imposing this definition of empathy onto other people through our products? Ultimately, that was a big question that I had a couple years ago.

And in 2015, I did something really irrational. I quit my job to travel the world, and I wrote a medium article about it. Just like all millennials. But anyway, I tried to distance myself as far as possible from the tech crowd. And surprisingly, the world taught me a lot about how to design for humans not like ourselves. And I wanna take this opportunity to share a couple stories with you about empathy and design.

So, in my opinion, empathy is a survival tool. And empathy actually breaks down into two different types from a psychologist. We have affective empathy, which is what mothers feel for their children when they're crying. And we have cognitive empathy, and that is the empathy we feel when we effectively have other person’s mental model in our system. So, we will effectively use that to capitalize on other people's feelings. And that's also a form of empathy. And that brings us to the fact that empathy has this blind spot.

We humans are tribalists. And so, when we get out of our tribes, we often don't have enough empathy for other people. And that's perfectly normal. So, for example, a western male might have more empathy for other western males, but not for other people. And that bleeds into our design. So I did a project in Bali for a community of these kids. And we have a community of thousands of supporters, and we wanted to raise money for them through these thousands of supports. So I suggested using a tool like Mailchimp. And so, we sent out a bunch of emails. They were well formatted, they were beautiful, and I thought they would work. No, it was disastrous.

We dropped from 80% read rate to under 50%. What happened? What happened was that I was biased that they cared more about usability than they cared about trusting one another, and trusting that the voice of the email comes from their leader and their tribe. So, this lack of trust actually overpowers our own designers bias that people everywhere prefers digital products to be simple and elegant. And it's not that simple.

So secondly, we readily empathize with individuals, and not groups. You can think back to empathizing with other humans it's always somebody else, some example, a testimonial, but it's much, much harder to relate that to systems and cultures. But, usually when we design, we design for groups of people living and existing within a set culture and rules. So, my research study in Zambia, it had to do with a mobile interface. And this time, I learned my lesson, I brought two types of interfaces.

I brought a textual interface, I thought maybe they trusted text better. And I brought a really nice looking Android interface. And it turns out, everybody flocked to the Android interface. I was like, "Why is that?" It's slow, it's clunky. Why is that? And, as it turns out, they preferred that because the Android interface made them feel like they were more socially above the food chain. See, when somebody else see a Zambian use an app that's very forward thinking, they get this feeling, "Oh, wow, I am more "knowledgeable, "I am more literate, "I am smarter." And that is a survival instinct.

So, this systematic motivation is so much more powerful than our limited understanding, again, of empathy, that everyone wants something simple and elegant. Again, it's not that simple. So, I wanna close off by saying, empathy is not enough. Empathy's a tool. It's often not enough to have these feel good feelings with our own people in our own meeting rooms. We have to get familiar with people who are outside of our space. And to do that, we need to go to their spaces. It's not enough to ask them to come into our rooms, to talk to them. We need to go to their dinner tables. We need to be apart of their conversations. And I encourage you all to do that. That's all I have to share. Thank you so much.

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