innovation

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.