Against Empathy: Why Design Thinking Demands More

design trends

Against Empathy

Why Design Thinking Demands More

September 14, 2015
by Augusta Meill

In the September issue of HBR, Jon Kolko writes about building a design-centered corporate culture by applying the core principles of design thinking. This is a lovely premise, and Kolko provides insight into the methods of design thinking and the challenges that organizations face in adopting it.

It is also a somewhat pedestrian premise.

What stuck most in my mind, as I read it, was actually a relatively small point that I have previously thought of as table-stakes—and this is the importance of empathy.

I never thought I would write to stand up against empathy. I’ve built my career advocating for the value of empathy.

However, I think that a pat reliance on human empathy and bread-and-butter experience design minimizes the challenges and opportunities that exist for design thinkers today.

At Continuum, we live, breathe and sell the power of empathy. We also recognize that we have a responsibility—to people, to our clients, and to our world more broadly defined—to look beyond the individual. If there is a pendulum of corporate focus, the push for empathy is a welcomed swing in the direction of human need. But this need not be a one-dimensional push-pull. There are other ingredients that should enrich the conversation about design thinking that are not fully represented in this human-centered approach.

Empathy Is Single-Minded

Empathy’s great value as a design and business tool is that it offers palpable closeness to other people. This is by its nature singular and individualistic. This is wonderful in helping us solve problems that people care about and design experiences they love. But it can also excuse us from taking the broader view. I argue that our responsibility as designers (and, dare I suggest, as business people too) should be not only to the individual but to the society.

The challenge with empathy is that people tend to focus on… themselves. People care about their worlds—their families, their jobs, their breakfasts. And I don’t blame them; I do too. So our empathy becomes focused on their individual needs as well. This serves us well in the design of “delighting” experiences, the transactional moments where corporation meets customer, directly or in the indirect terms of loyalty or lifetime value.

But as design thinkers we have the opportunity to step back from that singularity of focus to consider the broader scope. This toggling between the individual and the group should be an ethical requirement for today’s designer, and a principle introduced into the design-thinking rubric. We have long relied on a virtuous cycle to enrich the individual (the old American dream) and then for the individual to enrich the world in turn, whether in kind or in industry (as patron, donor, or creator).

We have the opportunity to create a virtuous cycle through design, but we need a toolkit that puts this responsibility front and center. Empathy doesn’t account for system-level needs. Design needs to. The most elegantly designed, industry-changing solutions balance individual satisfaction with system benefit, the unit with the whole, the happy customer with the enriched community.

Sanergy is a Kenyan organization that has focused on the challenge of access to basic sanitation. But rather than focusing on solely the consumer-facing element of the challenge (the toilet), Sanergy has tacked the entire value chain for sanitation. The company manufactures low-cost toilets that are installed in local settlements to provide access to hygienic sanitation facilities. These are franchised to local operators who run these as small businesses. Sanergy manages the waste collection and converts it into byproducts-like fertilizer. Here is a system that meets individual needs on multiple levels, providing the customer with access to a well-designed, clean toilet, the settlements where they are established with jobs, the organization with multiple avenues for revenue, and the community a cleaner, safer environment.

Sometimes this system focus is driven by external factors. Local, regional and global activism, for example, has led to enforced shifts in consumer behavior that often do not reflect consumer desire. On a project in Brazil, we helped a paper company benefit from a recent plastic-bag ban. In no way was this empathic to the end user; it was a regulated change in widely accepted behaviors, driven by environmental concerns rather than consumer wants or needs. Reusable bags were problematic; they cost money, were often forgotten at home, and didn’t have the secondary uses that consumers were accustomed to from plastic. Paper bags were suitable—and carried with them a halo of American suburban success—but were relatively expensive for retailers. Our solution was to use on-bag advertising revenue to subsidize retailer costs, while offering extremely targeted ad possibilities. And consumers were glad to not have be caught bag-free.

Empathy Lives in the Present

I’m guessing that Kolko practices it in his work, but not explicit in his article was a discussion of the time horizon that empathy offers. While it is important and necessary to tap into the needs and values of people in the present, our jobs as innovators and design thinkers is to anticipate how these will evolve in the future. The types of disruption we are seeing in the consumer market are hallucinatory in their vision and transformative in their impact. Imagine that you could push a button and a (nice, clean) taxi (with a pleasant driver) appeared. Picture living anywhere in the world for a day; what if you could split the lunch check without dealing with money?

Our job is not responsiveness—which empathy emphasizes—but also anticipation, of which empathy is only one part. Empathy can help to frame the problems to solve, but it takes an assertively creative mind to push ideas forward beyond today’s in-the-moment conceptualization.

Empathy is a useful way to help others understand some of the mechanics of what is happening when design thinking is in action, but can become a simplistic explanation. The truth is that there are non-logical, non-empathic moments at play, where big what-ifs and acid-trip ideas are what push forward our comprehension of how people think, feel, and act—into the future.

People remain at the core of our work, but we are also sourcing inspiration from experts, spying technology from the edge, identifying emerging trends, and conducting interviews with the cultural fringes. In a program to design a new toothpaste, we developed plenty of empathy for the types of folks we were targeting for this new brand, poked into medicine cabinets, watched them brush their teeth, etc. We also spent time with a sommelier, a newscaster, a porn star, people who were extraordinarily attentive to and articulate about their mouths. Empathy is not the full story.

Empathy Is Only One Language

I want us design thinkers to deliver change at scale. Scale is not free.

And so, while there is certainly a value in having big corporations speak the language of empathy, of feelings and needs, this doesn’t entirely hold water. I agree that there is use in traditional business embracing failure or becoming comfortable with time frames longer than a corporate quarter. But this does not excuse the need for the design thinking world to develop some empathy for the other side of the table as well.

We must articulate business value in order to engender human value. The divide that designers or the media or the business world has placed between what designer/innovator types do and what corporate/business types do should be dissolved. But not because one or the other has triumphed. Because they are two sides of the same coin.

We experienced designers exist at the invitation of corporate enablers. The cleverest start-ups are seamlessly building experiences and businesses as one. Successful innovations are just that because they have reflected back both an empathic experience design and an effective business design.

By corralling ourselves to just the empathy side, we limit the reach of our work and narrow ourselves once again. Design of business and design of experience go hand-in-hand; Kolko’s representation feels too us vs. them.

We studied this complexity of impacts recently in a white paper written for the Ford Foundation. Banking regulation has perversely made the low-income customer less advantageous to major banks by not allowing them to find profit in these people’s disadvantage. Our Foundation client had funded numerous organizations that had launched seemingly successful pilots, mostly financial products that were fair and beneficial to the low-income customer and profitable for the institution. This slew of seemingly successful pilots was challenged by scale; in our paper, we helped this community understand why they couldn’t find traction in larger institutions and mechanisms. Our paper is a discussion of the range of levers that must be considered; clearly human empathy alone cannot shift the direction of a traditional financial services organization.

Design Thinking Culture Can’t Live within an Organization

Finally, I take issue with Kolko’s emphasis on putting traditional design thinking principles at the heart of organizational culture. A big part of how design thinking has grown up is that its boundaries have expanded.

His discussion of corporate culture implies a happy silo, closed corporate walls with business people on the inside gladly accepting ambiguity and spending time sitting around kitchen tables with their consumers. This feels insular. It is the narrowest boundary that one can draw around a company that is not itself. The message is one of building from within.

But today’s innovation culture is as much about looking beyond corporate walls as it is about changing what happens within them. It’s open, collaborative, and connected. Companies from everywhere are creating new ventures, nurturing entrepreneurs, and incubating start-ups. The corporate design or innovation group has a different tenor, set of skills, and mission these days.

Design thinking isn’t just about design anymore; it’s about assembly, bricolage, sampling and appropriation. Not just craft and creation, but the bringing together of pre-existing elements to build that which is new… and yet is not. A company can be built today off of existing payment platforms, hosted on Amazon servers, running equipment manufactured by someone else, with front-line workers who are in fact self-employed. This is, I’d argue, design nonetheless—and requires the application of design thinking.

We just need our lead practitioners to be willing to open it to such possibilities.

filed in: design trends, customer experience