top of page

Empathy: the secret ingredient to meaningful design

The mammoth catastrophe in Kerala state and Kodagu district had several capeless heroes come to provide rescue and relief. We saw (and continue to see) help pouring in from all across the country. On one end of the spectrum people offered financial assistance and the other end saw laypeople and experts be on the ground and facilitate varied kinds of operations.

We swiftly moved from need for rescuers to essential materials that would help the denizens of the affected areas get back to their feet and start living a “normal” life. The latest (and highly impressive) initiative that I came across was about offering assistance to the impacted ones to cope with the Post Trauma Stress Disorder. The relief and rescue operations have been praised by the country’s experts too.

What brought about such cohesive unison to provide relief?

People owned up to each other because of a powerful sense of empathy. This all-pervading quality of empathy also happens to be one of the most important ingredients in the design world.

My work takes me to diverse locations right from remote tribal villages of India to dense, urban jungles of the world. I get to meet, connect and immerse in the culture and context of the people we design for. I get to be a part of people’s world, the way they go about their lives, and the systems they have built for themselves. This gives me access to a vast treasure trove of their dreams, motivations, challenges and their strategies to combat those challenges. These nuggets are powerful ingredients to make potent stories.

‘Every story is an opportunity to use our power as a creators to influence and design a better world.’

I, once, partnered with a demolition tools manufacturing organization for research on a project and got to interact with demolition workers who use those tools regularly. In one such interview, a worker said, “Madam LIKID to dalna padta hai, warna hum so nahi sakte” (translating to “Ma’am, we have to take alcohol, else we can’t sleep).

Imagine someone using this tool all day. The intensity of the pressure and vibrations are so high that these demolition workers need to consume alcohol every day to put their bodies to rest.

I am sure whoever designed these tools would have never imagined that using their products could lead to alcoholism and ruin the user’s health and the lives of their families too. These people get into debts because of alcohol addiction and deteriorate the quality of their lives. While the tool helps to speed up the process and get the job done faster, it leaves a long-lasting negative impact on the user’s lives.

The efforts to connect with the stakeholders and understand their world helped identify and uncover some of the issues, which if solved or even taken into enough consideration, could have a high-level impact, improving the workers and their families’ lives. It, of course, helped the team to prioritize their efforts in the right direction.

The powerful tool of empathy led us to these revelations.

How many times do we stop to ask this seemingly obvious, fundamental question — whom am I designing for and make enough time to indulge in their world, understand them and then make relevant products or experiences?.

With technology and talent at our disposal and lack of enough time to wrap the jobs well, we often miss to touch upon and learn about the most crucial element in the process — the PEOPLE. People who we are designing everything for. If they are so important, then why do we miss thinking about them altogether? Why is the required degree of empathy missing in our thinking and decision-making process?As creators and influencers, we have a vital role to play in the way we shape the world around us, how we build societies and the way we live today. How we feel and make others feel. How we cooperate and collaborate. How we support and grow.

In an era where experiences are valued far more than ‘things’, we have to place people at the centre of our design and thinking process. While designing any new experience, ask yourself — is this experience going to add any value and meaning to the user’s life? If the answer is anywhere in the range of ‘perhaps not’ to a clear ‘no’, then don’t invest in building that experience.

Empathizing with your users, stepping into their shoes is not as easy as it sounds. You don’t know which direction the findings may lead you to. Sitting on piles of accumulated information, coming up with clear and actionable insights is time-consuming and demands a lot of patience. While it is an incredibly messy and stressful process — both at mental and emotional levels, it is highly rewarding. It’s never easy to see, feel and think through other people’s eyes. By empowering yourself with knowledge of who you are designing for, you can influence and impact the decisions that will help make meaningful experiences that people need. It’s no more a fight between you and your boss, you and your development team or the business. It’s no more about the gut feeling or ego, or the infamous “I-know-it-all” syndrome.

We make awful products and experiences when we miss to connect and empathise with PEOPLE we are designing for. There are already many useless products and services that failed primarily because the users saw no value in them. On the other hand, empathy can help you discover facets that you may never have imagined even after you have created a product/service.

There are many stories we encounter every day when we are right there where the action takes place. Use these stories to know how people feel about your product and understand the users’ lives and systems before recommending any new intervention in a direction. After all, you don’t want to create new problems by solving one. It may seem like slowing down the process, but in the long run, you will only realize that you have saved a lot of time and money by investing it in the right direction and at the right time. Even an hour spent to OBSERVE and LISTEN to your real users will add a lot of value to your understanding of the space you are designing for.

If you try to look for opportunities, then there are many perfect stages to CONNECT with your users. You can choose to connect with them at almost all stages, whether you want to understand who your users are, gauge the relevance and acceptance of your ideas and products, or the system you plan to intervene in.

I am optimistic that the role of empathy will only get more critical in the future. We’re already at a path where massive investments are being made in the AI, machine intelligence and deep learning space. Machines are already performing cognitive and manual tasks. World Economic Forum has also recognized that skills like empathy, context sensing and creativity will become increasingly important to smoothly transition to the new world of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. So, the next time you design, make time to step out and connect with the real world you are designing for.


bottom of page