Can Empathetic Design Lead to Greed?

 As a service designer, and generally a lover of the social sciences, I totally geek out over articles that suggest how to apply principles of human emotion, such as empathy, to our everyday lives. The other day I came across this blog post, How to Immediately Improve Your Life (Hint: It Starts With Improving the Lives of Others)in the Huffington Post which really got me thinking about our collective motivations as designers, researchers and business people. 

In one section, the author posits that there are three kinds of empathy: 

  • cognitive empathy – recognizing how someone feels or what they're thinking
  • emotional empathy – feeling how someone else is feeling, and
  • compassionate empathy – knowing how someone is feeling, feeling how someone is feeling and then wanting to act on it.

Design thinking focuses intensely on user needs; recognizing unmet needs, designing to solve unarticulated needs, but in all of our research and investigation of user, how much are we really connecting with our research participants? Which level of empathy do we need to reach to create a service that really improves the quality of life?

I think it is fabulous that companies want to design and deploy products and services that solve a need, but to what end? Are they really looking to improve their customers' lives or is it simply to make a buck? Can empathetic design be motivated by greed? 

As a working designer, I feel very strongly that it is my responsibility (and the responsibility of other designers) to ensure that the services I'm creating have a positive and lasting impact on the end-user. How can we do that? By making sure our clients have a real and tangible connection to the lives and reality of their customers. 

At Peer Insight, we take our clients into the field. Traditional market research might help the client achieve the first level of empathy, but field work, experiencing what the user experiences, can really drive and motivate the team to compassion— to want to change the situation. 

I'm always looking for new ways to bring empathy into the design process. So, what else can we do to really get our clients (or our bosses) to engage in compassionate empathy?

I'd love to hear your thoughts. Message me: @jess_dugan