Facilitating Empathy

Are you designing for what you will never experience?


“I just wanted to eat not treated in a special way”, those were the words a friend said to Ola and me after we spent over an hour trying to decide what and where she should eat. We genuinely wanted to be helpful but ended up spending 45 minutes driving between nearby restaurants and flipping menus. She gave the feedback after she had eaten and gained strength.


As a designer, you will design for experiences you don’t have firsthand, solutions that you may never use. This gap in experience and beneficence can portray the designer as an outsider who has no business taking on the role. However, recognizing that people are experts in their own experiences can help designers tackle both challenges. Building empathy can help the designer gain this ‘recognition’.


Like in the little story above, understanding people’s experiences can make or mar our effort to design solutions for people. Understanding people’s experiences should happen before offering them solutions. While empathy is a means to understanding it should not be considered the same as understanding. And using or repeating the word ‘empathy’ does not confer you with it.

Through several interactions I refer to as ‘facilitating empathy’ for people who genuinely want to understand their audience, I realise that building empathy is challenging but surmountable. This is a recollection of what was key in those interactions and answers two questions — why understanding people is important and how to do that.


Bridging the experience gap


At least two things make a good design and speak to the experience gap. One, the ease with which your design can be used — user experience. And two, the extent to which the design addresses the problem — utility derived. In this context, getting acquainted with people’s experiences to solve for both will be understanding. Here’s more detail on why understanding can enhance utility derived:


Design solutions need to be assessed against the utility derived from them: The convenient thing to do is overestimate the relevance of our solutions, by equating only to the opportunity cost of our effort. Sticking with the convenience is exacerbated by the assumption that assessing utility should happen after the design is complete. The money Ola and I spent on a meal for our friend is a part of the equation but doesn’t equal our impact. Understanding puts a spotlight on utility early and reduces erroneous attributions of impact.


Solutions can be multifaceted with the potential to be deployed in phases: Potentially, all problems can be compartmentalised. Either due to self-aggrandizement or lack of strategy, we get lured into tackling them headlong. Depending on the scale of a problem, only so much is meaningful and feasible to address per time. For our friend, a bottle of sugar drink sooner rather than later could have been perfect and she would have a proper meal after she gets home. Understanding means knowing your design options, the advantage each present, and which makes sense to move on per time.


Setting the right expectations is an important part of a solution: In everyday conversations, echoing back what we heard can be a show of understanding. And there are keywords that amplify being perceived as such. However, beyond using choice words, setting wrong expectations can be signs you had gaps in understanding. When Ola and I agreed to “fix a meal” for our friend she did not expect it to take 45 minutes — she could have opted out. Understanding means getting on the same page and carrying people along.


Buy-in can increase the utility derived from your solution: People know when you ‘get’ them, just like knowing when someone is ‘in a zone’. They can also tell when you are going through the motion and are eager to display knowledge and resource. The evidence their inputs are taken can increase their vested interest in the solution. There’s a chance that Ola and I were out to impress our friend on that fateful day. I doubt she was. Understanding doesn’t happen at the end, it builds gradually throughout the interaction and the best chance of gaining buy-in.

More often than not, to be understood holds greater value than most tangible solutions. In all cases, the feeling of being understood enhances the value placed on a solution. In some cases, doing nothing is the required solution.


Testing for understanding

Perhaps, don’t design for what you don’t understand. Carl Rogers described empathy as a process. He describes it as entering the private perceptual world of another person to help them fully experience their meanings. Well, several fields rely on empathy and for the designer, it’s about authenticating the solutions before developing them. The following can be a litmus test while building empathy:


  • Empathy is not a solution: It is important to start with this circular distinction because of the risk of assuming empathy is for your audience. Clip those wings, empathy is for you.

  • Empathy listens: The speed of listening should trail the rate at which an experience is being shared. Immersed in the detail, you should cause the narrator to slow down.

  • Empathy takes time: It is a mental or emotional journey in which you relive the experiences of another. Slowing down and picking pace as the simulation unfolds.

  • Empathy requires effort: The work done is equal to the attention given to detail. Not measured by remembering all detail, but remembering the delicacy of passion infused in each.

  • Empathy is relative: It will take a different effort and time for different people to empathize with the same person. It depends on your proximity to the experience.

  • Proximity enhances Empathy: It’s possible to achieve empathy remotely but it is impossible to take hold of the fullness. Being in-person to observe is a game-changer.


Remote interactions save cost, but they can be too pricey for empathy. Your ultimate goal is not empathy but understanding, enough to allow you to create a meaningful and feasible solution. It is left to your discretion to decide when you reach that point. Don’t get lost in empathy. Staying conscious of how much resources you can commit is a good indicator.


Nonso Jideofor is a Design Researcher working to amplify alternative and new forms of power. This article was first published on Medium.