Empathy and Design

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the perspective, beliefs and feelings of another person.  Empathy is the foundation of good marketing, whereby a marketer has such deep understanding of the customer that they can build products and services that the customer wants and is willing to pay for.  Empathy is also crucial to entrepreneurs, leaders of all stripes, managers of people, salespeople, in fact, we need empathy in almost every role in society.


Recently, Professor Jean and I have been developing a new academic program.  We originally had approached it in a very strategic, rational way, looking at our strengths, at employer needs, and at our resources.  We had consulted with all the powers that be.  We had a beautiful program, or so we thought.  Professor Jean then conducted a mini-focus group at the end of a class.  To our surprise, while the students liked the program, they highlighted their lack of workplace experience, which was a real concern for them.  They suggested that we consider a co-op work placement as part of the program.

This was a great suggestion.  But more importantly, it reminded me that we needed to learn about the needs, concerns, beliefs, and fears of our students, their parents, and employers.  So I grabbed a copy of the empathy map from xplane.com (https://escuelaformacionupm.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/empathy-map-poster.pdf)

The empathy map helps us dig into what the other person thinks, feels, says, does, sees, and hears about a particular task or job.  It asks us to summarize what pains she might experience completing the task, and what gains might be valuable to her.  While the empathy map is often used by entrepreneurs, it can be used in any design process.  So we decided to use it to help us design our new program.  As I was completing the empathy map, I realized that I didn’t know as much about our students as I thought I did. And if we didn’t know that much about our students, we know even less about employers.

Developing empathy requires that we listen deeply to the other person, and that we do not form immediate judgments, just that we acknowledge that other people have different experiences in the same situation.  So students will have a different experience of a college program than will administrators, professors, or parents.  Empathy is not sympathy – it isn’t feeling bad for someone’s misfortune.  Having empathy for someone’s experience does not mean that standards should be lowered to offset past misfortunes.  Rather, empathy helps us figure out where someone is at and how they got there.  Knowing those two things helps us determine how to get them to where they need to be.  It may mean that the way in which we do things needs to change.

I’m not very good at this empathy thing.  I tend to jump to judgements and conclusions too soon.  I tend to make too many assumptions.  Even so, I continue to stubbornly practice empathy.  So grab an empathy map.  It may change the way you think about a complex problem.

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