Without empathy, what are we left with?

That’s a question that I’ve been pondering since last night when an old colleague and brilliant mentor of mine, Mark Nead of Boondock Walker in Cleveland, Ohio, posted an image on Instagram of a slide from a recent presentation he had recently visited. The caption on the slide is “Without empathy, it’s not design. It’s fine art.” I was immediately taken aback by this with a guttural reaction that just didn’t feel right. So I commented on the image.

”I’d say it’s more along the lines of ‘Without empathy, there are only passive experiences. Art by definition is subjective, and as a UX designer, our interpretations of others’ empathy need to skew towards the objective spectrum and leave our personal biases out of the equation. We can make presumptions based on what we learn, but to assume is a bit of a leap in logic’”

So this really became more of a rumination about what empathy brings to the table rather than what fine art is. I had plenty of these conversations when I was 20 years old and in Art School. Art is subjective, even if its intent is to critique objectivity as its subject. It is open to interpretation—subjectivity; empathy, however is not open to interpretation. It is the act of embracing another’s experience and behaviors and viewing everything from that perspective. You must leave as much of yourself out of this part to achieve the depth of empathy to create a viable design solution.

This really got me thinking about a lot of different things other than art and how they relates to design philosophy and the practice of designing user-centric products. Are we really doing our due diligence by making presumptions, or is there a more empirical way of differentiating design from art? How do we keep our own biases out of an empathetical equation as creators? I think the answer is actually quite clear after meditating on this for several hours.

Data Science = Behavioral Science

One could make an argument that the collection of data and its analysis is one way to achieve empirical empathy for an array of subjects. So following this train of thought, if empirical empathy does indeed exist, does that mean applying insights gained through these types of studies lead to the notion that user-centric design inherently has padding built in for making presumptions? All design truly is a philosophical strategy for solving an issue; it combines ethnography, anthropology, creativity, personal intuition and a logical and methodical approach to discovery to come up with a solution. The scientific method does that as well, albeit under different conditions; hypotheses are presumptions until proven true or false, and presumptions are inferences based in fact (previous discovery). I believe the same principle applies to taking an empathetic approach to user-centric design.

When we interview a client, a user of a product, or possible user(s) of a product, we are leading them through a series of questions that are meant to provoke original thought and conversation beyond the initial list of questions we’ve prepared. Questions are never and should never be simple true/false prompts—they are open ended and meant to spark the flame of storytelling in the interviewee. Only through this, can we get a retelling or insight into the subject’s previous experiences, and how those experiences have affected their lives and the following choices that life has guided them towards. We then take this data and analyze it through the lens of design. We can then draw conclusions, or rather presumptions, about what sort of stimuli causes a behavioral change in this subject, and most importantly, why it causes behavioral change, and what the effects of these changes are.

There is no Spoon

Ethnography, the act of discovering another’s personal culture and customs, is inherently set up to do this. It starts out with a layer of objectivity that then sparks the beginnings of self-analysis of the interviewee. This is where UX design truly starts, at the conversational level and understanding as thoroughly as possible the reasons behind others’ experiences, behaviors, emotions, wants and needs. We begin to understand and analyze the data we’ve collected; We must always keep in mind the conditions and behaviors we have uncovered as we interject ourselves into the stories we are told, and beginning to think as much like the subject as possible. Empathy is our tool, our approach to do this successfully.

If you got The Matrix reference back at the header of this section, go on and give your self a pat on the back! In the movie The Matrix, a sci-fi movie about a dystopian world run by robots where all humans live in a computer generated reality, Neo, the main protagonist and hero of the trilogy learns he has the power to alter the computer based reality from a young child who is bending a spoon with his mind.

The explanation posed for this phenomenon is that since they are both aware of their existence within a virtual reality, the spoon does not actually exist, so anything and everything can be done to that spoon without any of our real world limitations. Without context, there is nothing. Without the material for a spoon, there is no spoon. The idea of what a spoon is and what its purpose still exists, but not in a world without physical material. Without empathy, there is no user-centric design. Without user-centric design, there is no basis for benchmarking behavior and response to stimuli. And without all of that, there is only a problem left to be solved.

With deep empathy comes great user experience. With great user experience comes great usability.”

—Andrew Frank, UX & Product Designer