Empathy: Only for Users? Think Again.

There’s a lot of talk surrounding empathy in the design community. The talk mostly revolves around developing a better understanding of our users’ contexts. But what about empathy beyond users?

Back at my previous job, I used to get performance feedback in the form of teammate evaluations. Unfortunately, I found this feedback less than valuable for a number of reasons. First, they were made anonymous so there was a decided lack of detail necessary to help me understand what event inspired the feedback. Second, they were collected just once a year so by the time I got the feedback, it was too late to do anything about it. Finally, the feedback was delivered as a tool to argue for or against a salary increase. Instead of learning from negative feedback, I instead felt the need to defend myself against it.

One year, hoping for improvement, I decided to try something new. I invited my teammates to a one-on-one conversation. The deal was for us to sit face-to-face in a room, and for me to just shut up and listen. I could not defend or argue, only listen.

One conversation left an indelible mark. As soon as we sat down, the person said, “Slim, you’re intimidating.” I gasped. Me? Intimidating? I thought I was the sweetest person in the world! He said I came to meetings prepared with such a specific vision in mind, that he didn’t feel comfortable making contributions. He said because I projected so much confidence in the way I spoke to the team members, he didn’t feel comfortable disagreeing with me. I was surprised. I didn’t realize that my behaviors were perceived in this way.

This was a wake up call. I was spending days, weeks and sometimes months trying to better understand our potential users. Yet, less than a fraction of that time was spent on doing the same with my teammates. It was the classic case of a cobbler’s children having no shoes.

The research work I’ve been doing for the past five years revolve around the intersection of empathy and the creative process. But, every time I give talks or workshops on the subject, the questions I get focus less on the creative process, and more on how to apply the research to improve their personal or professional relationships. I think this is because many of us recognize the challenges we’re faced with as designers is not merely to better understand and to fulfil our users’ needs.

The fact of the matter is, to bring to market products that embody an understanding of the users’ context requires us to go far beyond understanding just the users’ context. There is a broader context in which we serve, and we have to realize that practicing empathy in relation to a variety of others is just as important. In fact, one of the biggest projects I worked on failed not because we lacked understanding of users’ context, but because we lacked understanding of our clients’ organizational context. Moreover, I recently talked to a design director at a large company, and he shared with me the significant difficulties he’s been having trying to get teams across departments to understand each other.

So here’s my question to you, dear designer. How have you been practicing empathy in relation to others beyond your users?