Designing with empathy saves business--and the world.

Uncovering a powerful consumer insight that informs and inspires design can change the world. And when it’s relevant to the client’s brand and goal, and empowers designers with informed intuition, it’s good for business too. How do we uncover the insights that make this possible? It starts with recognizing our own biases about the people we’re designing for, and relying on empathy rather than judgement.  

Design with empathy, not judgement

While designers are often adept at responding to cultural and societal cues, it can be challenging for them to design for a target audience they don’t know or relate to well.

In the past 13 years, I’ve met hundreds of people for in-home interviews all over the world: a poor single mom striving to get her kids into a better school district; a Fedex courier choosing to step down from a manager role to work on her feet more for her health; a young firefighter who takes out a too-big loan to buy a rimmed-up Chevy truck, to fit into his social group; an animal-loving personal trainer who’s also a proud former finalist on ‘The Bachelorette.’  

Some people I can feel an instant connection with, while others I find it challenging to relate to. Their values and lifestyle seem so different from mine, here in my Portland design community bubble--a privileged and self-consciously progressive community by comparison. Our clients at Ziba, though, often come to us with a design challenge that starts with understanding exactly those people with whom we can’t, at first, relate.

Tamara: suburban Columbus, Ohio. 24-year-old single mother of two living below the poverty line. Shops at Walmart, doesn’t recycle, works two jobs in health care. She is overweight and has health issues, yet smokes and drinks, and splurges occasionally at Starbucks.

You can already see my judgement of her creeping into that description. How do you design for somebody that you feel no connection to--with empathy? While visiting their homes and spending hours with them, I realized that it’s possible to relate to them when you learn their whole story, including the parts that they probably don’t want to tell you about.

You learn that she never lived anywhere there is a city recycling program. She’s never met anyone who knows how to recycle household waste. She shops at Walmart because it’s the only place where she can afford to purchase enough food for her kids, and she feels on edge walking into a high-end grocery store like Whole Foods. One time she was approached by a store staff member who seemed confused to find her at the store and asked if she needed any help. She never went back. She steps outside and smokes when she needs to hide her overwhelming sadness over dying patients; especially when so many remind her of her recently passed away parents. Starbucks is the only refuge where she feels normal, away from her demanding life.

Designing with empathy means putting judgement aside. Say your design challenge is to help her get out of poverty. Maybe you put a lock on her checkcard when she hits a limit of $20 a month at Starbucks, or you send her encouraging message to make coffee at home so she can save money. That’s judgment, not empathy.

How about understanding what it means for her to go to Starbucks and splurge five or six dollars of her hard-earned money? She feels guilty about the money she spends there, but finds great comfort in the moment, where everything is okay and she has a moment just for herself, away from her endless care-giving duties at home and at work. It is, more than anything, an act of emotional spending.

A truly empathetic design solution would be a financial help desk inside the store, ready to give quick tips on how to start saving for her kids’ education. While she would be too intimidated to walk into a bank asking for advice, she feels at ease talking to someone at Starbucks. How about connecting her with an experienced single mom who overcame difficulties, with a struggling single mom dealing with them right now, over a cup of Starbucks coffee? They could develop a lasting relationship that increases the resilience of their shared community over time.

When you design with empathy, you influence people’s lives, and ultimately help businesses thrive. But to do this, we need more than their age, occupation and economic status -- we need to understand their aspirations, motivations, and challenges. Empathy doesn’t come from anywhere else.

Challenges to using the “sharing economy” to share and overcome social isolation for black teenage mothers

I taught a Research Approach and Insights class for Collaborative Design program at Pacific Northwest College of Art and wrote this summary based on the students' report.

The Sharing Economy has exploded over the last five or so years, enabled by new social and digital platforms that make it easier for people to connect and activate untapped assets – cars, homes, skills, etc. Sharing Economy services have enjoyed rapid growth and tremendous media attention, but their benefits have been enjoyed largely by the affluent and/or upwardly mobile. This means that poorer people – those in greatest need – have yet to benefit from these frequently free or low-cost innovations.

When we spoke to a social worker about the Sharing Economy, we heard the following: "You’ll need a different way to describe this to our clients… like, here are some ways to hustle," which led to a good laugh. People with scarce resources often feel that they can’t take part because they don't have a car, or an extra room, or a master’s degree. What other kinds of barriers might be preventing the Sharing Economy hustle from spreading and benefiting more diverse people?

Beverly Stein, director of the National Policy Consensus Center at Portland State University and Jooyoung Oh, assistant professor of design research and insights methodology at Pacific Northwest Collage of Arts, met at the Prosperity Design Lab Follow-Up meeting in February 2015, hosted by Ziba Design in Portland, Oregon. There they agreed to collaborate on the topic of the Sharing Economy as social support. The Black Parent Initiative – a local nonprofit that helps the parents and caregivers of black and multi-ethnic children succeed – partnered with them to provide access to their members for in-depth interviews and home visits. Stein, Oh’s students and BPI worked to answer the following question:

How might peer-to-peer sharing provide young mothers access to resources and income and help overcome social isolation?

Over the last few months a team of five students met with seven BPI moms, employing a design research approach to learn about their lives. The students analyzed their data and synthesized key insights about what “community” means to these women, and how sharing resources might work for them. The results of this study will contribute to a proposal that will be shared with various foundations and other like-minded groups to prototype solutions using a Sharing Economy model to benefit low-income people.

Key insights:

1. ‘Kids having kids’ face shrinking social circles. “As a teen parent, the world looks at you as an outsider.” For young women, the lifestyle changes that result from motherhood often leads to social isolation from their peers. Teenage mothers have difficulty identifying with more mature moms, as well. Identity was at the heart of a great many of these mother’s concerns: who they are and who they hoped to become, and what their relationship to their community and social group should look like.

Teenage mothers also find the friends they’re left with are often less than ideal role models. "I don’t trust my old friends, they are immature. [And] not a good influence on my daughter.” These young women are forced to grow up fast in order to create a better home environment for their child (or children.)

These mothers find themselves isolated online, as well. "They are just Facebook friends, not real friends.” Although they were all heavy users of smart phones and social media apps, these young found social media NOT particularly social but more like entertainment – like reality TV. Feelings of social alienation and issues around who to trust are translated into behaviors online, as well. Young mothers aren’t often successful at deepening existing relationships or expanding their social circles online.

Institutionally, these mothers find little help or support. “I told them (teachers) I had a kid at home, they didn’t care. I couldn’t make it up, I had to drop out.” Discovered to be pregnant some girls we spoke with were told by their teachers that it was better that they leave school. Family reactions to teenage pregnancy are often difficult as well, resulting in young mothers feeling judged and shamed by those closest to them, to whom they reach out for help.  


2. Sharing is irrelevant without community and trust. “It’s hard to trust people, they always seem to let you down.” With small social circles and few strong relationships, teenage moms tend not trust many people. Trust is the fuel of any sharing economy, with stability and consistency also vital to robust functioning. With the competing, often conflicting priorities of childcare, employment and education, resources like trust and predictability tend to be in short supply for teenage mothers.


3. They take pride in their own purchases. “I don’t want somebody else’s old, broken down stuff for my daughter. I want her to have a new stroller, that I bought for her, with money I earned.” Providing for their children’s care and welfare is a significant point of pride for any mother, including the youngest. For them, resorting to previously used, often poorly cared-for items like as strollers, clothes and toys can feel demeaning and defeating.


4. Black Parent Initiative ‘home visitors’ are their best friends. We learned that the BPI ‘home visitors’ play a critical role in these moms' lives. They not only help them navigate complex, institutions like the Department of Human Services where they can feel humiliated, but also take on the roles of a family and friends. They go out to malls, eat together, and text day and night. However strong and helpful, these ‘home visitor’ relationships are short term and don’t often help single mothers build other, longer-lasting connections.


Build on existing networks. Extending the BPI intra-community could go a long way toward building a collaborative economy to support teenage moms. Fundamentally, this entails facilitating friendships between teenage moms living in similar circumstances to grow their communities. The groundwork already exists within BPI’s trusted network. (One example might be to connect new moms with ‘graduated’ mother-mentors.) Expanding these young women's’ networks will also reduce the burden faced by ‘home visitors,’ who often function as a sole point of connection to the world for their charges.

Work with existing tools. This is true digitally, as well, so consider making use of apps these women are already familiar with, like Whatsapp or Line, before building and marketing something new and unfamiliar.  

Easy on “diversity,” at first. Already vulnerable and ostracized, these moms needs more similarity than diversity to feel comfortable in new social settings. Start their reintroduction process with other people like them.

Black culture comes in many shades. Not all black parents share the same culture –there are huge cultural differences between Africans and African Americans, for example. Recognize the uniqueness of each group and identify what kinds of communication or events could bring them together.

Determine what resources can be shared, given or exchanged. Consider less-visible items, like blankets, clothes and furniture, which are less likely to function as expressions of pride or definitions of self-worth.



PNCA Collaborative Design Students: Colin Cheong, Matt McCasland, Tom Tobia, Amanda Wright, Luke Zimmerman

Co-teacher: Joan Lundell




Redesigning the American Wedding

The conventional wedding experience doesn’t fit modern American values and lifestyles. How can we use service design to reimagine it?

In the summer of 2014, as one after another of my 30- and 40-something friends decided it was finally time, I found myself invited to four very different weddings. One was a 30 minute City Hall ceremony in New York City, followed by a casual lunch. Another took place during an outdoor gathering of Burning Man enthusiasts on the Oregon coast, and included a smoked lamb feast and a silent disco. Another was held in the groom’s parents’ backyard, and had all the trappings of a classic American small town wedding—except that the best man was a woman in a tuxedo. In fact, of all the weddings I’ve attended over the past few years, not one was purely “conventional.”

In one way or another, each wedding had been redesigned to actively challenge basic assumptions about formality, attire, activities or vows, often at the cost of great effort and frustration.

From a designer’s perspective, this is a good indication that the American wedding is a service experience that’s failed to adapt to the needs of its audience.

The convention of marriage already faces challenges in the US: not from external forces, but from shifting perspectives among marriage-aged Americans. According to a 2010 Pew Research study, only 51% of US adults are married today, down from 72% in 1960. Yet despite this decline, young adults still value social rituals—especially those, like marriage, that reinforce and celebrate personal relationships. For today’s increasingly mobile, career-minded, urban couples, finding a partner with whom they can build a life is still a powerful experience, and the ensuing union is well worth celebrating. The traditional family-directed church wedding, though, makes assumptions about social and economic circumstances that are often no longer true.

Approaching this as a service design problem means examining the entire journey taken by the “customer” (in this case, the couple and their guests), identifying failings or friction points, and looking to parallel services for ways to improve.

Here are a few ways we could save the modern wedding.

All of them draw on familiar, existing activities from other fields, and have broader implications for the design of social rituals — especially those that bring together large, diverse groups of people.

Crowdsource the party.

For many couples, the best part of the wedding is that the maddening preparation is over. They must contend with the logistics that have always made weddings such a chore—seating, feeding, entertaining and accommodating dozens or hundreds of people—plus the fact that our communities today are more widespread than ever, both in location and in social norms. Today, it’s not unusual to have friends and family scattered across the planet, from conservative, meat-and-potatoes rural grandparents to a vegan photographer cousin who lives in Berlin.

For most of us, this is a once (maybe twice) in a lifetime event, that we quickly learn to plan and execute, then forget.

How might engaged couples benefit from the knowledge of friends and family who’ve already gone through it?

Crowdsourcing is already a powerful tool for channeling a community’s resources and experience to help small groups with specific needs.

What if there was a Yelp-like digital service to help couples choose venues and wedding-related services?

What if an entire wedding could be crowdsourced, with a platform that invites guests to contribute time, money or resources to make it happen?

This could be broader than just turning the reception dinner into a potluck. A well-designed, wedding-specific organizational platform could ensure that no detail is overlooked, help assign tasks to those able to complete them, and ultimately result in a ritual with real significance. For today’s cash-strapped but enthusiastically DIY young adults, a guest’s offering of food, music, logistical planning or plain old manual labor could bring far more meaning to the event than a gift-wrapped blender.

Turn the ceremony into a journey.

Once upon a time, most of the family and friends who might attend our wedding lived in the same town. Today, they could be anywhere. When our social links depend more on email, Facebook and Skype chats than in-person visits, does a wedding ceremony that expects people to travel from all over the country (or world) still make sense?

Many couples already hold multiple wedding celebrations in multiple cities, to better accommodate their far-flung communities; what if this was formalized? Imagine replacing the wedding ceremony with a “wedding trip” that has the couple traveling like a rock band on tour.

Stopping in several cities that have personal meaning for the couple, or provide easy access for friends and family, makes it easy to turn the wedding celebration into a series of smaller events with the opportunity for real quality time.

An online platform could help the couple and guests plan an optimal itinerary, and invite friends and family to contribute a portion of what they would have spent on travel, to offset the couple’s expenses.

Use technology to bridge the distance.

Given their mobility and technical savvy, it’s no surprise that many young couples have tried using video chat technology to include distant friends and family in their wedding ceremonies — but the results are often disappointing. Issues of bandwidth, resolution, layout and sound quality are already issues with live video chat; combine these with the normal pressure and confusion of a big wedding, and you have a recipe for anxiety and distraction.

One potential solution could be a national or international chain of restaurants or event venues with dedicated rooms specifically for long distance, big screen video chat. At an agreed time, wedding guests in multiple cities could meet at their local location of the chain, and enjoy a meal and celebration while interacting with the bride, groom and other guests at the main location.

While less immersive than attending the ceremony in person, this is could be an opportunity to share an experience with loved ones who might not otherwise be able to attend — or who might have felt obligated to, despite being unable to afford it, or uncomfortable traveling so far.

Provide more structured, non-verbal interaction.

“I would never go to a wedding alone. I tried it once, for an old college friend, but I barely knew anyone and spent the entire weekend having short, awkward conversations…”

Perhaps you’ve attended a wedding where you knew nobody, as a favor to your partner, or even braved one alone. The short interactions and forced significance of the wedding event can sometimes make them as stressful as the after-party at a professional conference. How might we design a wedding that minimizes superficial talk, and replaces it with something more meaningful — even a chance at genuine connection?

Taking on the Challenge of Purposeful Aging

How service design could link two of America’s most isolated populations.

Have you ever imagined how you might spend a typical day in your later years? Perhaps it involves sitting in a rocking chair with a giant mug of tea, reading the newspaper while listening to Leonard Cohen. Maybe you’re about to head to a board meeting at your local art museum (to feed your new, post-retirement interest in art curation), then spend the rest of the afternoon tending your huge vegetable garden? That, at least, is my personal version of happy future days.

That bubble suddenly popped earlier this year, when I visited a couple of retirement centers and volunteer organizations, as part of a research effort for a service design project. A team of us from Ziba had the opportunity to interview newly retired people, directors and program managers at volunteer organizations, and volunteers and directors at a community college that offers classes for elders. It was a personally eye-opening and slightly depressing experience, which has kept me awake for many nights since. It’s also led to some insights about retired life, and ultimately to a surprising design solution for those of us who dream of a day like the one I just described.

The reality of being old.

First, an abundance of free time doesn’t necessarily equal happiness. As a generation that never stopped working towards a goal, many Baby Boomers lack the essential life skill of how to enjoy free time. Many retirees today report feeling lost and isolated, lacking a reason to get up in the morning, and in danger of falling into depression. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, depression affects more than 6.5 million of the 35 million Americans aged 65 years or older. Yes, there is a honeymoon period where retirees go off to travel the world (especially those with means to), or take care of their grandchildren. But there will be even more free time available after doing all of that for a year or two. The popularity of classes and meet-up groups aimed at “finding a life purpose for retirees” is clear evidence. Complete freedom is not complete without a sense of belonging and purpose in life.

Second, let’s say they turn to volunteerism, in search of more flexibility and freedom than going back to work. The world of volunteering turns out to be fiercely competitive. As a “new” old person entering an established system, recent retirees often find themselves in the position of taking over an older volunteer’s job. Older volunteers might be shakier and slower, and the work can be mundane, yet the job the new applicant is attempting to take over is giving purpose to someone else’s life, leading to dirty looks and worse.

Even if the position comes through, the work is often under-stimulating, and always unpaid. Many of those we interviewed ended up in positions that didn’t match their skill set or schedule, were unchallenging, and didn’t provide the social interaction they’d hoped for.

A service platform that connects generations.

As I conducted these interviews, I came to realize these problems closely resembled those I’ve come across in interviews with young freelancers and startup entrepreneurs. Those who decide to leave their full time job and enter a life of self-employment can often feel lost and isolated, especially when suddenly separated from the school or company that once provided structure. They too want to find meaning in life and stay connected with their peers and with society—just like the retirees. This is more than just an analogous group with a similar problem. It’s two groups in exactly the same situation. And they have a lot to offer each other.

Visualize two Post-it notes in your mind. On the blue Post-its, list out the needs of these two groups. They both have a lot of unstructured time that needs to be filled, they both want meaning and purpose, and they want to stay connected. Another blue Post-it records their motivation to give back to the community.

On the yellow Post-its, list assets and resources. Retirees have a lot of experience in their field, and some might even have interests in investment and some extra savings. Among the younger group, especially Millennials, many are broke and have little experience, but bring an abundance of passion and tightly focused technical expertise.

This is a classic service design thinking moment: why don’t we place those two post-it notes next to each other, put a circle it around and call it an “opportunity space”? Help those two generations connect and share their resources, and in the mean time, design a better future for America? A kind of OKCupid for pairing the Encore Generation with Millennial start ups.

In practice, this could take several forms. A volunteer exchange, for example, could give tech-savvy 20-somethings the opportunity to share technology expertise with retirees in exchange for financial advice. Another possibility would be to borrow from Project Breaker, a nonprofit that brings 17-24 year olds together with industry experts, who walk them through a creative problem-solving process, and teach the entrepreneurial skills necessary to transform ideas into businesses. How about a tuition-free 14 day intensive workshop that brings qualified start-up entrepreneurs and retirees of relevant background together?

Taking a lesson from the Sharing Economy.

We live in an age of sharing economies, where power comes from matching apparent needs with often ignored resources. This approach has already been successfully used with cars (Getaround) and housing (Airbnb), but much less so with people. By recognizing the overlapping needs of these two groups, we can empower both to take more active roles in their society, and to continue giving in a way that fits their needs and lifestyle. Just like many other shared economy platforms, the exchange doesn’t have to come from a business.

Let’s start one today. Any volunteers?