Defining empathy for your organisation

The different types of empathy and why we need to choose one.

June 5, 2020
4 mins
to read

The concept of empathy has found its way into the vocabulary of just about every business mainly thanks to the pressures that a changing consumer landscape and the startup ecosystem have put on traditional business models. To stay ahead of the game, a business can’t simply spend more on marketing or release the product in a different colour. It has become imperative to the success and in some instances survival of a business to understand the nuances of its customers and their needs.

So, what does understanding your customers really even mean? If you build it, won’t they just come?

In short: it’s complicated; and perhaps, though they probably won’t stay.

To understand your customers, it takes empathy, and to understand empathy, it’s a little more complicated. Most people, mainly thanks to the dictionary, think of empathy as “having the ability to understand another person’s feelings”. This is fair - emotions are an important consideration - but this doesn’t quite get to the core of what you need to understand as a designer. It is because of this that my favourite definition of empathy comes from the internet’s most trusted source, Wikipedia:

“Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference.”

Those few words at the end there really drive home what empathy is all about. It is about understanding the context that led to those feelings in the first place. Let me explain:

Let’s imagine Skype wanted to create a version of the app to help elderly people call their family. Let’s also imagine that the designers on this project did all the right things, from researching the user’s pain points to prototyping and testing the legibility of typography and colours, minimising the steps needed to make a call, and filtering out background noise so hearing individual words is easy. From all angles, this seems to be an empathetic approach to designing the perfect, frustration-free app for the elderly.

Now, let’s consider the users’ different frames of reference. As people age, things become harder. This is an unfortunate fact of life. Arthritis reduces dexterity; cataracts and other things impair sight; hearing fades; voices change; memories go; and new technologies become more intimidating. So, is there a single app that can address all of these issues, and is an app even the answer to begin with? Simply the idea of an app assumes the use of a smartphone, which a significant portion of the elderly population can’t use properly. Would a Skype enabled device with buttons and speed dial make more sense?

The example above is over simplified to demonstrate that whilst pegging empathy to feelings alone may lead to positive outcomes, those outcomes alone won’t comprehensively address the problem at hand. Sure, you will create a product that minimises frustration and other negative feelings, but you won’t get to the core of the problem and create truly innovative solutions.

To truly embrace empathy in product design, it is important to define empathy in a way that considers more than just feelings and remain open to unconventional methods of researching customer problems. It is by understanding each users’ frame of reference that you are able to scratch beneath the surface and make significant positive impact.  

With this in mind, take a step back and try to write down what empathy means to you and your organisation. Are you giving yourself the opportunity to get to the core of the problem?

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