design with empathy

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.

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?