Can designers ever truly understand their users?
Empathy is a fool's errand
👋 Welcome to The Navigator. A newsletter about people, psychology and design for business leaders who want to make meaningful change. I’m Sarah Ronald, and I write this newsletter with the Nile team. If this email was forwarded to you, you can subscribe to receive it in your inbox every couple of weeks. You can also read and share this post in your browser.
At a recent Nile Executive Dinner, I sat beside a bank executive. We recently completed an extensive programme to help the bank ensure future products and services across the business are inclusive by default.
At some point in the conversation, I made an offhand comment about how it's great for people in the business to have greater empathy with customers, especially those classed as vulnerable. I didn't think much about the statement, as “empathy” is synonymous with design efforts; it literally trips off the tongue.
The bank exec was quick to correct me. She disagreed; we can't possibly have empathy, as we can't know what it's like to be those customers and feel what it is to be in their situation. But we can be attentive to it, and make better decisions as an organisation to improve it.
This idea of empathy as a red herring got me thinking. Is it time to stop obsessing over empathy in design? And if we do – what replaces it?
Was the empathic approach to design ever fit for purpose?
Earlier this year, Rebecca Ackermann wrote a brilliant piece for Technology Review questioning whether design thinking's promise to democratise design may have had the opposite effect. The crux of the article is a critique of the over-reliance on empathy in design thinking approaches. Ackermann writes:
"It gave designers permission to take on any big, knotty problem by applying their own empathy to users' pain points—the first step in a six-step innovation process filled with Post-its."
The piece struck a chord with me because it articulated something I've been thinking about recently.
Design thinking was at its peak when it was used to solve ill-defined or unknown problems. However, in today's world, where data is endless, and regulations are evolving, design thinking is less about generating innovative ideas and more about finding a path through organisational barriers and technical constraints.
Meaning, design thinking is less about empathy and blue-sky innovation and more about organisational alignment, feasibility and activating behavioural change.
And so, emphasising the role of empathy diminishes the actual value of designers by not recognising their critical, analytical and creative thinking skills which aid business decision-making.
Can designers ever be truly empathetic?
As designers, we can't ever be truly empathetic because we can never fully understand someone else's point of view, no matter how well-intentioned we are, or how much user research we do.
Chasing empathy is not helpful – perhaps even a fool's errand.
In partnership with Deloitte, we redesigned the Scottish Social Security processes. We needed to humanise a service that had become transactional and expensive. The users whose shoes we were trying to put our feet into were living month-to-month dependent on income support.
For starters, there was no way for us be able to know how devastating it feels when that support stops. And trying to think otherwise can quickly result in emotional fatigue that neither helps the design process nor, ultimately, the people who use and need that service.
Designers will always be biased, which will bleed into our work, albeit subconsciously. Rather than fight against that, it’s more effective to accept it. There's also the debate over whether empathy is even a teachable skill, a question that the scientific field has been asking for decades. In a 1990 research paper, Carol M Davis, an associate professor at the Miami School of Medicine wrote: "When empathy occurs, we find ourselves experiencing it, rather than directly causing it to happen. This is the characteristic that makes the act of empathy unteachable."
So what’s the alternative?
The difference between empathy and attentiveness
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. It's putting yourself in someone else's shoes. Attentiveness is the ability to pay close attention to something. It's the ability to notice details.
So, perhaps a more helpful paradigm for designers operating in complex business environments is attentiveness.
Years ago, I was part of a team looking into the needs of road users, and how technology could better support different user groups. We took a structured approach to the research including online surveys and roadside interviews, and then complimented it with unstructured insights from social media data. This uncovered a new category of users previously undefined from the structured research.
For example, we learnt that parents travelling with small children were an unknown vulnerable group. A mother or father travelling alone with their children cannot feed them when stuck in traffic for hours, comfort them, or change them causing distress for all in the car. The impact of a roadblock or tailback is much more significant for them than for other groups. Knowing this, we can better design a response system supporting these vulnerable groups with information ahead of travel or related to the roads they use most often which never existed before.
This insight didn’t arise from seeking empathy, it arose by being attentive to the data.
As the technology writer Dan Nixon writes, attention is not just a resource but also an experience:
"Conceiving of attention as a resource misses the fact that attention is not just useful. It's more fundamental than that: attention is what joins us with the outside world. 'Instrumentally' attending is important, sure. But we also have the capacity to attend in a more 'exploratory' way: to be truly open to whatever we find before us, without any particular agenda."
Applying this idea of attention as a capacity to be cultivated to design could have profound implications. Perhaps, paying attention to attentiveness is the next step for design?
Global Accessibility Awareness Day
Global Accessibility Awareness Day is right around the corner, and we have some exciting plans in store! On May 18th, we're hosting a full day of drop-in sessions with our director of accessibility, where you can get expert advice, share your experiences, and connect with other accessibility advocates. Whether you're just getting started with accessibility or you're a seasoned pro, these sessions are a great opportunity to learn, grow, and ask questions
In addition, we're launching a special podcast episode featuring some of the top accessibility leaders in the industry. This episode will cover a range of topics, from the importance of accessibility in technology and design to the challenges and opportunities of making digital content accessible. Don't miss out on this opportunity to hear from some of the best and brightest in the field.
To make sure you don't miss this opportunity, book your session now.
Asking what we owe each other with Baroness Shafik
Dag Lee, Nile’s Chairman, recently attended a dinner with Baroness Minouche Shafik from The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) at Panmure House for their Adam Smith Tercentenary Lecture.
Baroness Shafik is a leading economist whose career has straddled public policy and academia. She spoke about her new book, What We Owe Each Other: A New Social Contract, examining the Smithian questions of What does society owe each of us? And what do we owe in return?
A recording of the evening is available on the Panmure House website; I also highly recommend her book!
Nilers Jamie Spratt and Katherine Snow spoke at The Scottish Financial Enterprise event recently, on the topic of “Inclusion - What does it mean?” And more importantly, what can you do?
(We often speak at SFE events, you can learn more check about their event schedule)
Senior Service Designer, Louise Mushnet, will be speaking virtually to Dubai-based designers on the topic of Making Services Inclusive and Accessible by Default. If you’re interested in this presentation for your own organisation get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nile is a Strategic Design team that helps deliver human-centred change in highly regulated industries. Our methods engage employees and customers with new technology and ways of working. Our outcomes help save money and improve business performance.
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Thanks for reading! 🚀