The Role of Empathy in Design
In the design community, we often use the word empathy as if it’s a tool used for acquiring insights. We talk about interviewing, observing, role-playing, or otherwise finding a way to gather knowledge from users to produce better products. This framing is especially valuable in differentiating our human-centered approach from those that care less about user input or participation. However, it’s also unnecessarily limiting and may sometimes even be unethical.
First of all, empathy need not be limited to users. It can apply to our clients. It can apply to our co-workers. It can apply to the materials we use to design and make with.
In fact, it can even apply to our so-called “selves.” You may have said to yourself from time to time “I don’t feel like myself today,” or “I don’t really understand myself.” These situations can be thought of as indications of our inability to empathize with our objectified “selves.” Basically, empathy can apply to any object of our perception—whether the object is tangible or not. Seen in this fashion, our work designing products and services is realizing empathy with and across a variety of “others” in an integrated way. In other words, what we call products and services are byproducts of realizing empathy.