What’s empathy got to do with it?

December 6, 2012 in Human-Centered Design
Lauren Chapman
Human Scientist

A strong human-centered designer has a keen sense of empathy for his or her users. The more fieldwork I perform at MAYA, the more I find the need to stress that empathy is not sympathy.

What’s the difference?

Often these words are used interchangeably, but there is a distinct difference. Empathy is the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes and actually imagine how another must be feeling. Sympathy is the ability to recognize and feel sorrow or pity for the suffering of another. These abilities are even expressed in discrete parts of the brain—sympathy is thought to use recognition functions in the frontal lobes of the brain’s third layer, while empathy is thought to include functions in the lower right lobes of the cerebrum.

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Sympathy can motivate a person to improve a situation, but it can cloud proper design judgment, and complicate relations with the person for whom you are researching and designing. Empathy, on the other hand, helps designers to increase their understanding while remaining objective.

Sympathy and empathy are different in another way as well. It is considered “easier” to feel sympathy than to feel empathy. Why is this? When we feel sympathy, we feel for another, but do not understand what the other person is truly feeling; we are not, as Alvin Goldman1 says, “putting oneself into the mental shoes of another person.” When we are empathetic, we have built an understanding of another’s emotions and feelings.

Empathy as practice

At MAYA, we have a toolkit for building empathy. We employ ethnographic research methods, like contextual inquiry or ‘walk-a-mile’ immersion, designed to gather information about a person’s usual activities. We go into the field, into the context of the person we are designing for, and work to recognize what their needs, desires and struggles are. When we gain understanding through these methods, we develop empathy.

Developing empathy involves time and patience—it takes emotional energy to truly feel what it is like to be another and to identify with their emotions, lifestyle, culture, and social norms—all without judgment.

The good news is that empathy is a skill that can be learned. Here are some best practices we’ve found helpful for developing empathy:

  • Imagine yourself in that person’s situation—take time to think through how you would feel and how you might act in their situation.

  • Immerse yourself in the situation. Instead of being a silent observer, put yourself in their shoes (a famous example of this is spending a day in a wheelchair to understand what it’s like to be a full time wheelchair user).

  • Nurture your relationship with the person you are working with. Developing deep empathy may involve multiple visits, follow-up questions, and observation on how the situation or person may change over time.

  • Set aside your beliefs, concerns and personal agendas. Go into the conversation with no personal expectations or judgments. You may have assumptions or a hypothesis, but be aware of what these are and be sure to vet these against what you find.

  • Identify with the person by focusing on the feelings and situations from your past that are similar—this can help deepen emotional insight. Be careful to listen and observe how they feel so you don’t cast too much of your own feelings onto the situation.

  • Gain personal perspective—know who you are so that you can separate from the other person. By doing so, this can help you from taking things personally. Try writing down your personal perspective, and then literally set that aside. This makes it easier to go into the situation with a blank slate, ready to develop empathy.

Keeping personal perspective is crucial—this helps us remain removed enough to put on our “designer lenses” and look for opportunities in these interactions.

Good job—you’re learning how to build empathy for your users! I can sympathize.

The second step is deciding what you do as a result of it—how to use those experiences to make things better. After all, it is only through questioning what we find today that we can surface new meaning for tomorrow.


1: Goldman A (1993). “Ethics and cognitive science”. Ethics 103: 337-360.

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