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Whitepaper: Why You Should Invest in Empathy

Artefact’s pursuit of 21st Century Design aspires toward preferable outcomes to benefit society, the economy, and the environment. We believe that lives are larger than interactions with a product, that users are more than targets and sources of growth. Instead, they are partners in achieving societal goals. As designers, we can carefully choose what outcomes will lead to progress. In order to do that successfully, we need to approach our work with empathy – empathy towards the user, the context of the situation, and society. In this post and accompanying paper, we will explore the concept of empathy: why it matters in design and how we work to achieve this outcome in our work.

What is empathy?

Empathy is a modern word, but not a modern influence. It was coined in 1909 based on turn-of-the-century ideas. Definitions vary but generally share two components: intellectual identification with the situation of another person, and experiencing a shared emotional state. It is often described as walking in someone else’s shoes.

Why is it essential?

Whether we feel empathy or not, we are all connected. You are connected in innumerable ways to Kevin Bacon but also to someone halfway around the world living in utterly different conditions. Dissident activity in the Middle East can increase the price of oil in North America, send global markets downward, and prolong local recession. Desertification in Africa may be caused partially by pollution in China, and the resulting dust clouds may influence hurricane development in the Atlantic. In many important ways, we are all part of the same in-group.

Recent studies have shown a decrease in empathy during the past 30 years among college students – the last 10 years have seen a more precipitous drop. And narcissism is on the rise. (Konrath et al., 2011.) There are theories about why this may be. Reading has been shown to correlate with stronger empathy. Unfortunately, far fewer people read for pleasure these days. Robert Putnam’s book, “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” describes the increasingly solitary life of the average American as participation in in-person events and organizations has declined. Socially isolated people “evaluate others less generously after interacting with them,” and Kenneth J. Rotenberg of Keele University in England has shown that “lonely people are more likely to take advantage of others’ trust to cheat them in laboratory games” (Zaki, 2011).

Practical effects: Better designs and stronger ethics

Despite the world seemingly becoming a smaller place, business is further than ever from its customers. For thousands of years, people made things for themselves and people they knew. These other people were close by and had very similar lives, making it easy to design for all the nuanced knowledge they shared. In contrast, modern businesses have global customers who may be very different from company staff and never cross paths. Businesses have rapid and detailed supply chain intelligence and market research conclusions but lack empathy, which could help them more quickly respond to needs and design better products based on shared knowledge and experience rather than abstract models and PowerPoint bullets. Shared experience makes design and business decisions more intuitive (Patnaik, 2009).

Want to learn more? Our whitepaper below provides additional background on the concept of empathy and answers design-related questions like:

  • How can decision makers get a better intuitive sense of their customers to complement the faceless data?
  • What are some creative ways that working teams can get a deeper sense of walking in their customers’ shoes?
  • How can you recognize when there is an opportunity to increase empathy among customers?
  • How does technology act against empathy today and what can we do about it?
Download Whitepaper