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Empathy in Design: From Mindset to Practice

Image by Couleur from Pixabay

Design thinking offers hope, and holds promise, for designing significant change. In a world fraught with misunderstanding and habitual polarization innovation leading in the direction of a more humane world is tempting.

Empathy is one of seven key mindsets described by Ideo to guide human-centred design. By putting yourself in the shoes of the person you are designing for and understanding their lives you will be better equipped to design innovative solutions to their challenges.

Yes indeed, empathy as a mindset is essential. But how do you ensure that it doesn’t just stay there in the back of your mind? How do you ensure that it guides your intentions and moves your actions?

While much is written about empathy in design, we struggle to find actual instruction on how to do it in a meaningful way. In this blog we introduce Integrative Empathy as a science-informed practice with actionable and verifiable tools for its practice. When applied in design it deepens innovation and enables creative teamwork.

Integrative empathy is practiced throughout the design process

The application of empathy is useful throughout the design process. When applied skilfully it provides universal capacities to guide all interpersonal interactions.

Empathy is explicitly advocated for researching user needs in most design traditions, and is frequently used interchangeably to describe the research or inquiry phase of the design process. As a mindset and practice, it’s application is just as important to create and maintain a multidisciplinary design team, as well as to check-in while ideating and implementing prototypes.

Integrative empathy is a five-layered practice:

Self-empathy All empathy starts with self-empathy. In Integrative empathy we recognize that without first noticing, recognizing and working with self, you are likely to confuse what you notice in others with your own biases and preconceptions.

In self-empathy the empathizer directs their attention to their own inner experience with the intention to gain awareness and understanding of their ongoing inner state. This brings self-awareness to thoughts and feelings as well as personal assumptions and opinions. It also aids the suspension of judgment. It helps to distinguish the experiences of self and other and to avoid common pitfalls of directing towards a preconceived outcome.

Be comfortable with emotions In Self-empathy you learn to be comfortable with the expression of emotions while maintaining neutral emotionality yourself.

Notice, recognize and work with bias Biases and assumptions will determine outcomes if not explicitly addressed. Designers readily bring awareness to common biases. But those involving personal anxieties are insidious and more likely to be overlooked. Doubt about one’s performance, confirmation bias, and anxiety about time constraints are commonly observed to cause a designer to direct outcomes. The practice of self-empathy, as an on-going habit, helps guard against.

Connecting with Kinesthetic empathy Kinesthetic empathy helps you to connect with others and brings awareness of how people influence each other. It is the capacity to participate in somebody’s movement, or sensory experience of thought or emotion, in the shape of movement.

This is where empathy is so much more than a mindset or mental process. While thought about with the mind, it is experienced and expressed with the body, specifically in the muscles, heart and nervous system[1]. Kinesthetic empathy applies embodiment practice to connect to and embody previously unknown client experiences and sensations. It also refines self-other differentiation, a sense of where the self stops, and the other starts.

Observe subtleties in immersions In Kinesthetic empathy you learn observation skills. You become more aware of other’s movements or sensory experiences as they express them through their body language and movement. This is an essential skill when immersing yourselves in their world.

Create cohesive teams We see so many projects flounder due to subtle undermining group dynamics. The early signs are often visible in subtle movements, but overlooked until they become overt and challenging. In kinesthetic empathy you learn how to create group cohesion using physicality rather than thought.

Building Understanding with Reflective empathy Reflective empathy helps to clarify problems and create mutual understanding through literal and advanced empathic listening. Truly hearing what another person means through what they say is more than directing one's ears toward them.

Empathic listening requires attentively leaning in to the other, with a willingness to be changed by what one hears. It requires directing full attention toward all that the speaker is saying, gesturing and implying. Skillfully practicing both literal and advanced empathic listening is applied in interviews and team sessions to help facilitate the speaker to connect to and articulate from deeper consciousness.

Gain insights in interviews We frequently hear instructions to ask open ended questions in interviews. However, we advise no questions! Any question is leading. Instead try inviting thoughts, feelings and experiences about a particular topic. Then reflect back what you hear. When your interviewee hears you reflect back what they said, they will notice and fill in the gaps themselves. They will also be encouraged to go deeper.

Build multi-disciplinary teams Habitual power dynamics and conflicts of interest form in interpersonal interaction, unless addressed. Compromised interpersonal dynamics are common in teams and also observed amongst stakeholders and between researchers and users.Team members tend to listen without actively hearing what others are saying.

In Reflective empathy you learn skills of empathic listening and how to help individuals or groups to create a container for self-expression of all its members.

Diversifying perspectives with Imaginative empathy

Imaginative empathy uses imagination and ‘as-if’ acting to gain an experience of the perspectives of others. It provides designers with an experience of the effects of exploring a problem from multiple perspectives.

Design empathy is described as being ‘sensitive to another person’s feelings and thoughts without having had the same experience’. When empathizing, one often asks the question: “How would I experience this person’s situation?” One needs to be cautious of this ‘imagine-self’ perspective. It does not necessarily provide valuable insights into the experiences of others.

The real empathic question is “What is it like for the other to be in their situation?” This is an ‘imagine-other’ perspective and when fully embodied through guided ‘as-if’ acting, aids innovation in empathy maps and personas and provides a check to the limits of one’s empathic accuracy[2].

Learn to recognize, understand and embrace multiple perspectives In Imaginative empathy you learn skills to understand, acknowledge the value of and encourage diversity. This includes skills to suspend judgment and encourage others free from your own projections, values, norms and opinions.

Gather insights with Empathic Creativity

Empathic creativity gathers insights into a guide-to-action. Empathic creativity is a direct result of the previous empathic practices. At any time during the design process, the designer can identify significant moments of insight. ‘Significant’ because they are particularly intense, meaningful and memorable. They signify the moment when one realizes something is important. They spur empathic action: they energize people to pick up on what is happening and follow through, enabling designers to identify important data for prototyping and keep everyone on board during the design process.

In Empathic creativity you learn to discern significant insights, learnings and moments to integrate into the design process.

In partnership with Empathic Intervision we offer Online Integrative Empathy for Design Workshops.

Authors: Dr. Katherine Train is co-founder of Empathic Intervision and Empathy Facilitator at Design Thinkers Academy, South Africa. She holds a PhD from UCT, Graduate School of Business. She researches, develops and presents training on empathy, wellbeing and professional development. LinkedIn Dr. Lidewij Niezink is an independent empathy scholar and practitioner and co-founder of Empathic Intervision, holding a PhD from the University of Groningen in The Netherlands. She develops evidence based interventions and education for diverse organisations and writes and speaks on empathy for scientific, professional and lay publics. LinkedIn

[1] Schmidsberger, F., & Löffler-Stastka, H. (2018). Empathy is proprioceptive: the bodily fundament of empathy – a philosophical contribution to medical education. BMC medical education, 18(1), 69. doi:10.1186/s12909-018-1161-y

[2] Ma-Kellams, C, & Lerner, J. (2016). Trust your gut or think carefully? Examining whether an intuitive, versus a systematic, mode of thought produces greater empathic accuracy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 111.5: 674.

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