What is empathy and how to improve it

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Sometimes it can be difficult to understand another person's viewpoint, especially if they are from a completely different culture with which you have never come across.

In design, the more you understand the users you are designing for, what motivates them, what frustrates them, their role within their environment, the more likely you are to understand the real problems and offer the right design solutions.

 
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Empathy is the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person's situation. To be empathetic, you have to treat people based on their emotional reactions.

 

To give you a bit of scientific background on empathy, humans are wired to experience empathy through something called mirror neurons in our brains. Mirror neurons are brain cells that respond equally when we perform an action and when we witness someone else perform the same action. For example, when you are watching a sports competition and your heart starts racing because you are excited, nervous and you feel the adrenaline of the match, you can mirror how the competitors are feeling, or when you see someone crying, you feel sympathetic towards them. Mirror neurons were first discovered in the 90s during which a team of Italian researchers found individual neurons in the brains of macaque monkeys to fire the same when the monkeys grabbed an object and also when the monkeys watched another primate grab the same object.

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These neurons create a network that connects us to the feelings of people around us.

Empathy is a skill that can be refined, below are some ways you can learn to be more empathetic:

 

Listening skills

Listen to people when they tell you how they feel and what would make them feel better.

You don’t need to say anything, just being there and listening is a great way to make people feel understood. In design, if you take time to listen to your customers and take onboard what they are telling you, you show them that you care.

Be mindful

Mindfulness is a mental state achieved by focusing on one’s awareness and consciousness in the present moment. When someone is talking to you, it’s easy to start daydreaming and letting your mind wander off, but try to bring it back to the moment you are in. You will be able to better understand and analyse the situation you are in by being mindful.

Be fully present and tune in to non-verbal communication

Observe tone of voice and body language, such as micro-expression, as these can tell a lot about the way a person is feeling.

Immerse yourself in the same environment

Spend a day in another persons shoes. Observe the people you are designing for in their natural environment (also called field study). Spend some time in their context to better understand how the product will be used on a daily basis. This lets you gain a deeper understanding of their issues, needs and challenges. Field studies let you put aside your own assumptions about how things work, and instead encourages you to observe how they really work.

Become curious about people and things that you don’t engage with on a daily basis

Having conversations with strangers and people we wouldn't usually engage with on a daily basis lets us learn something new and opens up our mind to see something from a different perspective. Engaging in things we normally wouldn't can also challenge our assumptions and prejudices.

Consequences of lack of empathy in design

It’s important to remember you are not your users. A lack of understanding of your users and their context of use can lead to misunderstandings about their needs and wants and that to poor design decisions.

Google’s first wearable product, the Google Glass was criticised for a lack of empathetic understanding of the users context. Glass is a voice activated device which fulfills tasks such as sending messages, taking photos and checking the weather forecast. But to activate these tasks, the user is required to say “Ok Glass, what’s the weather forecast for tomorrow”, for example. Google failed to realise that this is an awkward act to perform in a social situation, indicating Google’s lack of empathetic understanding of the users social environment. If the use of a product relies on the user having to perform socially awkward or unacceptable acts in public, then less people will be willing to use it, and they are more likely to look for other devices that provide the same service but are less awkward to use. This emphasises the importance of understanding the context of use.

Being empathetic is an important skill in everyday life as much as in business. It lets you better understand and connect with people and it opens your mind to new ideas.



Further reading

IDEO’s Human-Centred Design Toolkit


Illustration by Onkel Wanskicks