Rapid empathy | PDD

Rapid empathy


on February 20 2013

“You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird. 

Atticus Finch knew that the key to understanding people was building empathy for them. In this post we explore the role of empathy in innovation and our experiences with rapid empathy-building exercises.
So, what is the role of empathy in design and innovation?
Imagine that your job is to generate ideas for a device that helps people with arthritis open bottles easier. Which of the following scenarios would result in the most useful, usable and desirable concepts?
  • Scenario 1: You brainstorm ideas for the device.
  • Scenario 2: You read about a woman with arthritis and the struggles she faces. Then you generate ideas for the device.
  • Scenario 3: You observe people with arthritis as they go about their daily lives and talk with them about the challenges they face. Then you brainstorm ideas for the device.
  • Scenario 4: You observe and interview people with arthritis AND you put on gloves that mimic the effects of arthritis and try to open some bottles. Then you brainstorm ideas.
Looking at Scenario 1, unless you already know something about arthritis, your chances of generating something that people will actually want and be able to use are pretty slim. As your understanding of the audience increases, so does your chance of generating concepts that answer real problems in real contexts-of-use.
Empathy-building exercise with the attendees of the Hong Kong HCD Taster session.

Empathy is not just a nice-to-have when it comes to innovation, it’s essential. We’ve been teaching this as part of our Human-Centred Design (HCD) workshops, where we work with participants for two or three days, using a number of different empathy-building methods, such as contextual inquiry, fly-on-the-wall observation, and walk-a-mile immersion. From pre-recorded interviews of people using their blood glucose meter and discussing what it’s like to live with diabetes, to having participants complete a number of tasks in a shopping mall whilst on a mobility scooter, we’ve been experimenting with different empathy-building exercises, trying to find the ones that a) actually build empathy and b) can be done in a relatively short time-frame.
As if that weren’t challenging enough, we’ve also been trying to integrate such exercises into our shorter HCD taster sessions, where we have one hour to introduce the design challenge, help participants develop an understanding and build empathy for the people they’re designing for, and then give them a framework for generating ideas, collaborating with others, and communicating the final concept.
Generating ideas after understanding more about whom they’re designing for, made brainstorming easier for the attendees.

In fact, we recently trialled a rapid empathy-building exercise using Walk-a-Mile Immersion during a taster HCD session in Hong Kong (coinciding with the launch of our HK studio). The attendees (without prompting) talked about how valuable it was to understand more about the people they were designing for, which is great news and shows that even with limited time (15 minutes!), you can design exercises that give people a glimpse of some of the challenges their audiences face.
Obviously, the more empathy you can build the better. No one would expect to establish a deep understanding of what it’s like to live with diabetes, or arthritis, in 15 minutes. But, if people leave the sessions wanting to know more about ethnographic methods and empathy-building exercises, or with a renewed commitment to using such methods, then that’s a great start.
Of course, a taster session wouldn’t be complete without a party…

Our Managing Director of Asia, Oliver, building empathy with the DJ by wearing the honorary gold chain!

If you’re still reading…
The title of this post “Rapid Empathy” is a nod to Millen’s great article on Rapid Ethnography: Time-deepening strategies for HCI field research.
Anthrostrategist has tackled the sticky topic of “Doing Rapid Ethnography and whether it (or “Corporate Ethnography”) really qualifies as ethnography: “Does corporate ethnography suck? A cultural analysis of academic critiques of private-sector ethnography“.
And for some nifty examples of empathy-building exercises you can do in half a day, or even just a few hours, see Dev Patnaik’s article, “Innovation Starts with Empathy: The importance of developing deep connections with the people you serve.