The importance of empathy in design part 1

In a previous blog post I discussed the concept of 'design without thought'; for me, the definition of great user experience is when people don't have to think about an object, they just use it.

In order for us to design online experiences that can be used 'without thought', the insights that drive our design solutions need to be derived from understanding people and their experiences, behaviours, perceptions and needs.

Here, empathy is key.

The different types of empathy

Philosopher Roman Krznaric outlines two definitions of empathy: affective empathy and cognitive empathy.

Affective empathy is a shared emotional response (for example, if you look at a child in anguish and feel anguish yourself). Cognitive empathy is when you understand someone else's perspective or mental state; when you place yourself in someone else's shoes. Krznaric explains that it's almost like an actor looking through the eyes of their character.

Tim Brown of IDEO says: "Empathy is the mental habit that moves us beyond thinking of people as laboratory rats or standard deviations. If we are to 'borrow' the lives of other people to inspire new ideas, we need to begin by recognising that their seemingly inexplicable behaviours represent different strategies for coping with the confusing, complex, and contradictory world in which they live."

Krzaric explains that as humans we label people, we have prejudices. But highly emphatic people can get over these labels by nurturing their curiosity about others.

As designers, cognitive empathy is something that we need to cultivate if we want to keep people at the centre of the design process. Empathic design thinking helps to create solutions that people have a need for, even if this need is unexpressed. This is where true innovation comes from.

Empathic potential

But there are other great reasons to place empathy at the core of our design thinking.

Krznaric talks about developing our 'emphatic potential', and research around empathy has shown that when we are more empathetic, we also enhance our ability to process information more thoroughly.

Empathy can help us to focus, prioritise, and defend our design decisions. It also what helps provide us with the motivation to overcome the inevitable obstacles in bringing new offerings to life.

In the next post in this series, I'll be discussing some of the techniques we as creatives can use to embed empathy in the design process.


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