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Human-Centered Design: Why Empathy Isn’t Everything

As a designer I’ve spent the last decade translating human needs and desires into experiences that fulfill them — and I’m convinced: the human-centered design process demands more than just empathy with others; it requires a deep understanding of our own selves.

Practitioners of human-centered design focus on the importance of empathizing with others and removing our own bias when evaluating their needs. After all, we often find ourselves designing for people who are quite different from us, with different needs, desires, and underlying value systems.

But here’s the rub: we’re human too.

As human translators, it is impossible to be purely objective and unbiased for precisely the same reason we’re able to empathize with others: humans are emotional beings. We need emotion to uncover insights.

But empathy has a few unfortunate characteristics as well — “it is parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate,” as argued in a New Yorker article titled “The Case Against Empathy.” While we’re busy empathizing with the needs of the few, we may be missing something much greater.

Take, for example, the emergent on-demand economy. Uber, Instacart, Wash.io, and Sprig are among a myriad of on-demand services replacing what some might deem inconvenient, but necessary, chores.

In isolation, each of these services provides real value. These are high-quality, convenient, and frictionless experiences, and they ultimately save people time to do more of what they care about. In aggregate, however, these services make a strong argument for what the future should be — one where everything is available on-demand and every experience is almost entirely free of friction.

“The Uberfication of everything is turning San Francisco into an assisted living community for the young.”

This tweet from Startup L. Jackson conjures up the image of a dystopian future where obese people glide around in comfortable seats and interface solely with a screen, despite the sincere attempts of our dear friend Wall-E, defender of the human experience.

By removing all friction, we remove moments for personal growth, serendipity, and self-reflection. At scale, these erode our social values and skew our lives towards intolerance and impatience, a lack of resilience and an inability to navigate change.

Is that the future as it should be?

Where once we had the luxury of longer timelines to reflect on how new technologies would impact our lives, today we have months, weeks, if not days before they’ve completely transformed our expectations, values, and the way we live our lives.

So whose responsibility is it to ask whether something is “good” or “better” or as it “should be”?

If we’re engaging in a truly human-centered design process, then it is our responsibility to ask these questions. To responsibly design for humanity, we must first know ourselves.

But the responsibility also extends beyond designers. It is every single individual’s responsibility to ask these questions and to know themselves — their values, needs, and desires — so we can all have a productive conversation about the future as it should be.

Designing to address the implications of macro-trends — like the on-demand economy — and their impact on our lives at scale isn’t enough. We need to design products, services, and experiences that help people understand themselves better.

Design is, after all, a fundamentally philosophical profession. What do you value?

Steve Selzer

Steve is a former Creative Director based in San Francisco, Ca.

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