Studies have shown that over the years, young people are becoming increasingly less empathetic. In 2016, Forbes released an article about how a lack of empathy damages one’s reputation and impact as a leader, because it strips them of emotion. They illustrated an example about a major corporation retrenching 400 people in a single day through an email, and this created a missed opportunity for the leaders to truly understand the misery they were causing their employees.
In Design Thinking, we stress being empathetic towards the end-user of any product, service, or experience that we provide. Using empathy, you gain a deeper understanding of the problem that needs solving, and the people you are solving for; developing insights about users’ motivations and behaviours that you might otherwise have missed if you relied solely on intuition and your own assumptions. Empathy is a great tool, so we’ve listed out the 3 ways empathy can transform your work:
No matter which field of work you are in, you serve users both internal and external. It’s simple to make calculated guesses about what your users might want, but empathy helps us to tap into the more subtle, hidden messages that other people are unable to otherwise discover. Take for example, one of our favourite Design Thinking case studies – General Electric’s Embrace Infant Warmer.
A team of students at Stanford d.school was tasked with addressing the high mortality rate of premature babies in the highlands of Nepal. Initial assumptions told them that they needed to develop a new incubator for those hospitals. However, by conducting empathy fieldwork with the mothers, they learnt that the journey from their respective villages to the hospital took the mothers and infants at least two hours – under extremely cold conditions. By the time they arrived at the hospital, it was too late to save the infant as they could not regulate their own body temperatures at such a young age.
If the team chose to address the assumed problem, they would have gone on to create more advanced incubators, which would end up unutilised as the problem was never about the quality of facilities. Because they empathised with the mothers, they discovered that the real problem was in the journey from home to the hospital. What resulted from this insight was an infant body warmer, akin to a warm sleeping bag, which could sustain these infants throughout the 2-hour journey to the hospital.
The more familiar we are about a subject matter, the more closed off we are to new angles and ways of looking at it. We call this the expert bias – using current knowledge to inform future conditions of the particular subject. While this is useful in some areas, the lack of awareness about this tendency can cause one to reject new and potentially insightful ideas or approaches. With empathy, though – you cut through this intuitional expert bias and make way instead for uninhibited, creative ideas.
Airbnb is a great example of that – Joe Gebbia, the co-founder, believes that talking to their customers and putting oneself in their shoes is vital to success. That’s why he constantly asks his team to speak to their customers during their first week, and journal their experiences. This exercise is carried out to encourage the new employees to see and experience different problems faced by their users, and allow them to be creative to find workarounds to the problems. It was such a powerful exercise that they changed one of the most seemingly menial of things to make Airbnb a better experience for their customers – the star icon.
One of their designers, after spending a day with their users, found that the original star icon that indicated a user’s interest in a particular listing was too cold and detached, so they replaced it with a heart icon. Though a minor alteration, this change caused the increase of business by over 30%. From the lens of an Airbnb employee, the app was functional. That being said, by putting a hold on the expert bias and empathising with the user, they learnt that meaningful change albeit small, can influence the tone of their message and radically improve their business.
People often talk about how empathy can be used by Design Thinking practitioners to come up with more user-centred, innovative solutions, but it starts with having creative collaboration – a team that is open, bold, and resilient in working through challenges and achieving desired outcomes, together.
We encourage multidisciplinary or cross-departmental teamwork in order for the team members to offer different vantage points, cancelling out mental blind spots that could inhibit the generation of creative, groundbreaking ideas. The challenge, however, lies in working through the differences towards achieving a common goal.
True empathy requires spending more time listening than talking; that is, listening to understand, and not to respond. If we are able to successfully see where each other is coming from, we are able to communicate better and build trust amongst team members.