24th September, 2019 • 4 minutes
Design tip: empathy
The Tech Design industry has suffered from—or cognated with?—the misuse of the word “empathy” since Tech firms started acquihiring Design agencies at the start of this decade in their pursuit of a new competitive advantage: experiences designed to anticipate and seamlessly supply human interactions through glass.
Unfortunately, as with all lingo that are misappropriated in Linkedin hashtags and Medium articles, the idea of empathy as magic got bandied about not just to the business leaders it was originally intended for (hint: acquihiring is good for business) but also anyone else who might read any Tech x Business x Design media, such that even those transitioning mid-career from art direction to product design felt the need to add empath to their resumes. The message was clear: all one needed to do was add a dash of empathy, protego totalum, profit. Alas, because the need for building control often reduces language to instrumental tools, Empathy As Magic Design Tool is a drastic and quite immediately obsolete reduction of the word.
And yet, empathy is everything they said it was. But to know that, it’s important to understand what the word means stripped of all other context. Empathy means you imagine how someone else feels, using your own memories, but without having to feel that way yourself. That’s it. It is the beating heart of what it means to be Human: from this imagining, we get social behaviour, which in turn leads to shared meaning, ritual, language and, far along the line, civilisations.
With this explanation, empathy is not just design’s secret weapon, it’s what runs our society. Without being able to imagine the feelings of another—and from this imagining, deduce someone’s intentions, for good or bad—we have no ability to co-operate on a shared, imagined future (that’s a fairly good description of what design is, by the way).
Applying empathy in software design
Empathy gets confused with sympathy. They’re pretty much the same, with one major difference. Sympathy means you have the same feelings as another (“sym” meaning together and “pathos” referring to feelings or emotion). Empathy is when you imagine or understand the feelings of another, without having to feel them yourself. So in actual fact, when you are designing, you’ll want to get as close to sympathy as possible —to be your customer.
When applied to software design, that can be difficult. Because software scales so well, hopefully far beyond the Dunbar Number, “being your customer” can quickly become an impossibility. Which is why Paul Graham said that when you’re building a business via interactive glass, “do things that don’t scale”, which is another way of saying to increase your chances of retaining empathy, keep your scope small until you have something you can risk scaling. If scope and scale dominate your process before you know your customer, you’ll lose your ability to empathise.
Empathy can’t simply be tacked on to a process. In fact, it’s always already there. We just have to uncover it. We are hardwired to perceive it yet when we are focussed on being instrumental, on building things, we forget that intuition is our access to feeling: both from ourselves and to that imagined in others. Empathy allows Gestell. The result is obvious: a bad, ugly interface is untrustworthy and frustrating because it hasn’t imagined what people want. A good interface is calming and energising because it has.
Gestell is like a painting of the world. How do paintings (landscapes) “work”? They convince you you are “in the picture”... So Gestell doesn’t just enframe the world, it also forces us to ask, how am I to be seen in this world?
When the concept of empathy is named and understood like this, it forces us to ask “how am I—and my product—to be seen in this world?”. But if it goes unnamed, we simply think we’re “in the painting”, reduced to a mere instrumental process, imitating itself.
Recommendation: Musing Mind podcast
Here’s some recent work, and a great example of a fun collaboration: helping out my friend Oshan to design his podcast branding. Check it out. And I highly recommend his discussion with Erik Hoel for starters.
Reading: “Subcultures were the main creative cultural force from roughly 1975 to 2000, when they stopped working. Why?”. David Chapman’s Geeks, MOPs, and sociopaths in subculture evolution” was this week’s highlight.
Watching and listening: Before Chernobyl, Johan Renck directed The Last Panthers. I chose it because I’m a John Hurt fan (RIP) and didn’t realise it was Renck until the opening credits (which, by the way, uses David Bowie’s Blackstar, his best Scott Walker impersonation, and the video immediately looks to have been inspired by Guillermo del Toro).
Music: I have a playlist of 6 hours of Gurdjieff & De Hartmann. I played it twice this week. Here’s an hour for you.
Work: in progress.
That’s a wrap. This one took 90 minutes. As always, your thoughts, tweets, tangents, criticism and breakbeats are welcome.