The concept of empathy is a trap

Update

Check out this article Empathy as Faux Ethics by Thomas Wendt:

Popular design discourse is full of articles, books, and conference presentations on the role of empathy in design. In both commercial and non-commercial settings, most designers argue the same thing: designers should attempt to build empathy for “users” so they can better design for them. But empathy as it’s generally practiced ultimately subverts its own goals. It tends to reinforce “otherness”, promote anthropocentrism, and ignore ecological considerations.

The research

In episode 45 of the Design Review by Jonathan Shariat and Christopher Liu they talk about empathy and ego, centred around a HBR article Putting Yourself in the Customer’s Shoes Doesn’t Work.

Johannes Hattula and his co-researchers at the Imperial College London observed in interviews with marketing managers that when primed to have empathy for customers they then went on to express preferences that were actually ego-centric and not from the perspective of their customers.

That is, people who believed they were being empathetic were actually less so, and would likely make decisions that aligned with they wanted – which would obviously have negative consequences for the desirability, market fit and adoption of products, services and brands that those marketing managers were responsible for.

Steve Jobs

I say “obviously” but I should be cautious because Jon and Chris go on to talk about Steve Jobs at Apple, who on the surface appeared to be a strongly ego-centric leader and yet led the company to runaway success.

In their podcast:

One thing that this brings to mind – and I think we could have an interesting discussion about this – is the whole idea of Apple under Steve Jobs versus Apple today. Steve Jobs I think, and right or wrong, you could probably view him as fairly ego-centric or ego-driven at least. But yet he seemed to also understand users or user behavior or at least you could say he was pretty savvy about what sort of customers he could appeal to with Apple products.

So is being ego-centric necessarily a bad thing? First, it depends on whether the observation about Steve Jobs is correct, and whether it’s as simple as drawing a direct link between Jobs’ ego and Apple products.

From Big Think’s article Steve Jobs’ Favorite Product Was the Team He Built at Apple:

One of Jobs’ most important skills was his ability to work with and promote loyalty within his team of experts. Sure, Jobs was bombastic, but he also knew the importance of inspiring people to achieve the company’s lofty goals.

From Apple Insider Five years after Steve Jobs: An Apple with the courage to say ‘No’:

Saying No is critical to good design and engineering. Without a confident courage backed with informed conviction, products can lack clear definition and purpose.

Where does empathy fit in?

There’s some argument that caring too much about users can lead to uninspired, mediocre products that are functionally sound and useful but are missing a soul, a vision.

And now research shows that even when we think we are caring about users we may not be, certainly when we’re going with gut instinct instead of empirical data.

Jon and Chris encourage designers to do their homework and share their data so people can get on the same page and make informed decisions about what users want. Empathy is then an attitude, not a feeling. Empathy in design is a willingness to put aside your personal preferences and work with the preferences of others.

Once equipped with that insight and data your team can then be self-referential, cross-checking decisions and assumptions to cancel out bias:

It wasn’t actually confirmed in their research but based on what their findings were they thought that maybe doing some sort of team decision-making type of activities like brainstorming this might help alleviate the problem because having more opinions on the table might reveal some other internal biases within the organisation.

Do we focus too much on data? Too much on this concept of empathy? Is there room for ego? Do we make excuses for ego-driven design because of a misunderstanding of the causal link between Steve Job’s character and behaviours and the look and success of Apple products?

Some good quotes from Chapter 6 “Design is for people” from John Edson’s book Design Like Apple:

Apple assumes the role of the customer in the design process and considers every aspect about the product, from the user interface to the in-store retail experience when the customer finally comes into direct contact with the product.

Isn’t that empathy?

Apple applies that principles to technology, using design to add a distinctly human sensibility. It makes technology feel emotional, as if a friend rather than an infuriating automaton …

So now we’re entertaining the idea that the products we design can display empathy rather than necessarily being empathetic during design in order to build the right product?

It seemed that the insight and data that Jon and Chris talk about in the podcast is absent in Apple:

According to executives from Steve Jobs on down, Apple doesn’t operate like many other companies in that it doesn’t ask the market what to make or undertake conventional forms of research. Jobs distrusted research. Instead of asking customers or the market about products, Apple works largely from intuition and a pervasive human-centred ethos.

How can you claim to be human-centred and yet shun research into the needs, preferences, motivations, and goals of customers?

Instead of focusing on marketing research or feedback, Apple has established an internal process where design ideas are traded and filtered in the development process.

So basically “Designing for people like us” and not even bothering to practice empathy, although Jon and Chris point out that’s not necessarily a bad thing (and Apple’s success would support that):

As long as users are somewhat like you I think there’s a lot you can figure out just from your own thoughts and preferences about usability

But tweaking the details is different to choosing what to build in the first place. Apple can do what they like, they can (and likely will) fall on the sword of their own arrogance, especially now without a strong visionary leader at the helm.

Should we follow Apple’s example?

As designers who are entrusted by clients to get it right the first time we have a duty to do it by the book, play it safe, do the research and make evidence-based recommendations that maximise the likelihood that products and services we work on will be perceived by users and customers as useful, useful and hopefully even desirable.

Leave the big gambles to innovators like Apple where design direction comes from the top and the whole company is on-board with taking risks with big pay-offs. That’s generally not the space we play in.

What we call “ego”, Jobs called “craftsmanship”

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