This week in the Falmouth University forum we were asked to define empathy as a designer. It was supposed to be just a quick Q & A, but I went off on a tangent…
We were asked:
So what is empathy? Why is it important for UX designers to try to understand why their users feel the way they do, and how does that help us as designers understand how we can be helpful to our users?
I enjoyed reading my peers definitions, they made some really interesting points around the limits of empathy. I agree with the idea that ‘walking in someone’s shoes’ is a fallacy. We may research someone’s experience and emotions, but this doesn’t mean we have enough data to understand the full context with which to interpret them, the lens is still our own.
Friedrich Nietzsche coined the term Perspectivism: The philosophical position that human perspective shifts according to the individuals’ experience and interpretation. He believed that “human intellect cannot avoid seeing itself in its own perspectives.” (New World Encyclopedia)
I interpret it as “there’s a limit to understanding another and that limit is your perspective”. This doesn’t mean we’re all brutal individualists, but that our lived experience shapes the way we see the world, and the way we understand other people.
To sum up: My perspective is that as UX designers our job is to understand the user to the best of our ability, whilst acknowledging that we can’t fully understand their lived experience. This is why continued user testing and validation is also important, we keep filling in our gaps of understanding as we go through the design process.
Beyond empathy for the individual
Whilst cultivating empathy for the user is of upmost importance, I am surprised that the practice of empathy in the UX design process doesn’t extend outwards, as it does in Human Centred Design practice (Ideo 2015). Can we empathise beyond the user to the other humans who may be impacted by the technologies we design?
Of course we as individual UX designers can’t do it all, but if we’re advocating for the user, researching their needs and understanding their context, shouldn’t the people and society around the user come into play at the user research stage?
The philosophy and methodology Value Sensitive Design (VSD) takes empathy beyond the individual user, offering an interactional point of view. Departing from the idea that the design of technologies shapes society, the creators of VSD encourage designers to analyse the impact of design on both direct and indirect stakeholders / users. This philosophy broadens the criteria for judging the quality of technology, focusing on overall ‘human flourishing’ as the end goal. (Friedman & Hendry 2019)
Their approach asks the question: When empathising with our users, how should we consider other people and ecosystems which may be impacted by our design?
IDEO. (2015) ‘The Field Guide to Human Centred Design’. Ideo.org. [online] Available at: ideo.org/tools. [Accessed 10th February 2022]
New World Encyclopedia. (date unknown) ‘Perspectivism’. [online] Available at: www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/perspectivism [Accessed 10th February 2022]
Fig 1 (cover). Collaged images using: ‘I love the way you’re thinking’ graphic and yellow circle gradient, both via Unsplash, @mymind. [Accessed 10th February 2022]