Empathy: A Core Condition for Humanistic Design

Many involved in human-centred design (ergonomics, human factors, UX, interaction design, etc) have an internal or external consulting role. Much of the time is spent thinking about task/interaction design, user interfaces, work environment, and many technical and project management issues. In getting caught up with the detail, we can forget something fundamental about consulting. That is, consulting is primarily a relationship business (see Peter Block). If you are a practitioner, client, co-worker or end-user or other project stakeholder, think about the design (or helping) projects that were most successful and enjoyable. Chances are, the quality of the relationships between those involved in the project was a critical factor, and something that you remember fondly. The positive relationships are more often causal to this success than consequential.

If this is so, what facilitates these productive relationships? Research in the helping professions suggests that a key ingredient in effective relationships is empathy. In the context of therapeutic personality change, Carl Rogers argued that empathy within a relationship one of the ‘core conditions’ which create a climate conducive for growth and development. Daniel Goleman cited empathy is one of the five components of emotional intelligence at work, and empathic listening is one of the ‘seven habits of highly effective people’ according to Stephen Covey.

Despite being such a fundamental human capacity, empathy is not often considered in scientific- or engineering-oriented disciplines, but human-centred design consulting involves consulting with people, about people, for people. In effective consulting, perhaps without realising, consultants (and consultees) use empathy to understand the perspectives of others, from their viewpoint. Empathy is a rich and complex concept, it may be viewed as a trait or state of a person, a process and a skill. Empathy is colloquially seen as ‘walking in another’s shoes’. In this sense, empathy can be thought of as ‘perspective taking’; the ability to perceive accurately the frame of reference of another person while maintaining a sense of separateness – the ‘as if’ quality.

In ‘humanistic design’, we may empathise in several ways, for instance:

  • emotionally, e.g. How might a plant worker be emotionally affected by a change to a new shift pattern? How might automation of the more engaging aspects of flying affect a pilot’s job satisfaction?
  • cognitively, e.g. How might an air traffic controller’s decision making be affected by a new decision support tool? What might be the side effects of a new and more restrictive procedure introduced without worker involvement?
  • physically, e.g. What physical challenges are faced by schoolchildren who must carry very large bags? How are less able travellers ‘disabled’ by the design of buses and trains?
  • socially, e.g. What might be the effect of family life of a new product for children? How might new working hours or travel requirements affect workers’ social and community lives?
  • ethically and morally, e.g. What is the effect of design decisions to improve the user experience on assembly line workers in the manufacturing plant? What ethical or value tradeoffs might be involved in the decision to purchase a product or service that may have contributed to harm to humans, animals, or the environment?
Chris RubberDragon https://flic.kr/p/aEVuek CC BY-SA 2.0

These questions can be addressed formally though scientific inquiry and informally via empathy. There need be no conflict between the two. Insight gained via empathic listening and observation can complement more formally acquired knowledge to better understand the fit between people and activities, artefacts and environments, and build the relationships that are necessary to improve this fit. An empathic approach can also detect the need for more formal scientific inquiry.

While human-centred designers may refine their knowledge about people via formal education, the foundation for this knowledge is our day-to-day experience of the encounters that we have throughout life. With this understanding, and the knowledge developed in formal education, we further our understanding via our professional relationships with the people that we help.

Empathy helps to establish rapport, which helps develop an understanding of people’s behaviour as well as their values, attitudes, feelings, knowledge and skills, and the meanings that they ascribe to these. Fulton Suri notes that empathy helps us to learn ‘why’ as well as ‘how and what’ people do, and helps us to take a more holistic approach to the person. In some cases, empathy can help us to understand the person more accurately than the detailed models, and in a manner that is more timely than studies that may take many months – or years. So practitioners may use empathy as a qualitative research tool as well as a consulting skill.

The human-centred design disciplines are naturally focused on the ‘user’ (or rather, the person). But another group is often responsible for making decisions about users: clients (or sponsors, customers, project managers). Empathy with clients is vitally important to achieve change as a result of the intervention – to ensure that a recommendation becomes implemented and delivers the outcome desired. Empathy can help to create a working alliance with clients, and leverage commitment. How often do we consider what it is like to be a client? What are their values? What are their goals and expectations? What pressures and constraints impact their decision making? The same goes for other stakeholders, including those affected by the things – products, processes, procedures, etc –  that we design (beyond the ‘user’). Perhaps we can also help decision makers to empathise with those who will be affected by their decisions, thus generating a climate conducive to the acceptance of human-centred advice.

Empathy is a fundamental human capacity, but effective empathy is not as intuitive as we may think. Bohart et al suggests that we can distinguish between three different modes of empathy. Adapted to a consulting perspective, these are:

  • Empathic rapport: the consultant uses empathy to build rapport and support the consultee.
  • Process empathy: a moment-by moment empathy for the consultee’s experience, cognitively, emotionally, and physically.
  • Person empathy: this is known as ‘experiencing near understanding of the consultee’s world’ or ‘background empathy’.

But beware: losing the sense of separateness and impartiality may lead to ‘sympathy’ with the consultee. The consultant may become lost in the consultee’s world, even taking responsibility for the consultee’s decisions. In fact, sympathy can block the capacity for empathy and so can be counterproductive. For instance, while we generally strive to understand ‘end users’, if this leads to strong state of sympathy, then empathy with clients and colleagues (and even the end users themselves) may become very difficult. This will get in the way of acceptance of insights by decision makers and other stakeholders. I have seen this many times (and no doubt fallen for it myself too), not only in design but also in other aspects of human factors practice, such as incident investigation.

So, it can be concluded that empathy is a core condition for humanistic design (necessary but in itself not sufficient). What role does empathy have in training, practice and personal development, and how can empathy be fostered and used effectively? And what are the other core conditions? A little time diverted from our more formal approaches toward this fundamental issue will help us to remain centred on the human, and improve further the effectiveness of design and consulting.

Adapted from Shorrock, S. and Murphy, D. (2008). Empathy: a humanistic take on human factors. The Ergonomist, October 2008, 10-11.

Author: stevenshorrock

This blog is written by Dr Steven Shorrock. I am interdisciplinary humanistic, systems and design practitioner interested in human work from multiple perspectives. My main interest is human and system behaviour, mostly in the context of safety-related organisations. I am a Chartered Ergonomist and Human Factors Specialist with the CIEHF and a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society. I currently work as a human factors and safety specialist in air traffic control in Europe. I am also Adjunct Associate Professor at University of the Sunshine Coast, Centre for Human Factors & Sociotechnical Systems. I blog in a personal capacity. Views expressed here are mine and not those of any affiliated organisation, unless stated otherwise. You can find me on twitter at @stevenshorrock or email contact[at]humanisticsystems[dot]com.

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