The Emergent Nature of Empathy

Empathy is often the abstract goal of design intent, but the tactics for getting there are pragmatic. They involve understanding people, place, culture, things, history, perception, aspiration. We explore these topics in conversation with individuals and whole communities; we observe in order to understand; we talk it all though with colleagues and make judgment calls. Empathy can emerge as a result of these activities.

One of the most effective is exploring and documenting histories with participants, then creating biographies that can be shared and re-told with stakeholders. These biographies, which we often call profiles or archetypes, hold the power of story in them. They are influential and often re-told throughout the design process, resulting in a sort of empathy that gets shared, and if supported, greatly impacts the way we (frog/client) think about designing and how we actually design.   

Another tactic has to do with phenomenology, or how we create shared meaning of an experience. We struggled with this recently on project designing new safety equipment and practices for coal miners. I would venture to guess you have no idea what it’s like 2000 feet underground, and after experiencing it myself, it’s still hard to describe. Upon returning to the surface after a day’s work in the mines our team was literally at a loss for words. The challenge was finding those words because without them, we couldn’t articulate a human-centered design intent. Empathy was hard to realize. Sharing stories helped us get there, along with wearing the grit and grime of the experience for awhile (cue Patricia Moore). Our client was with us every step of the way, sometimes wide-eyed observer, sometimes a sherpa. This shared experience, along with our eventual ability to re-tell it through design models (profiles, insights, ecosystems, touchpoints) has contributed to the lifecycle of empathy in their organization.

Below: walking a mile in their shoes, this author suits up during a safety course before making the decent for a day’s labor in the coal mines.

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