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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,, 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.

Write a Comment

I really enjoyed this article! I appreciated you figure it out why people couldn't get the user real needs in design process.
Ricky zhang, 2017-04-05 17:30:22
Great article! Can anyone recommend similar articles or books challenging the use of empathy in design?
Moni G, 2016-10-09 12:34:13
Sweet, deep post, Steve. An old boss of mine once wrote about having lunch in a wonderfully crummy old restaurant in Madrid...and realizing that his job as a designer was to eliminate all such experiences from the world. To fix the old table so it didn't rock back and forth any. Smooth out the rough edge on the waiter. But who wants to live in a world without seams? Your post reminds me, too, of a great passage by Kierkegaard, asking himself what he's going to do with his life: [W]herever you look about you . . . you see the many benefactors of the age who know how to benefit mankind by making life easier and easier, some by railways, others by omnibuses and steamboats, others by the telegraph, others by easily apprehended compendiums and short recitals of everything worth knowin....And what are you doing?” . . . [S]uddenly this thought flashed through my mind: “You must do something, but inasmuch as with your limited capacities it will be impossible to make anything easier than it has become, you must . . . undertake to make something harder.” This notion pleased me immensely. . . . I conceived it as my task to create difficulties everywhere." I read that quote out loud to my students on the first day of the first philosophy class I taught--because making things difficult...not so smooth, harder to take for granted, trouble enough to make you wonder...seemed like a big part of how we learn.
Dan Coleman, 2015-09-25 13:31:46
I really enjoyed this article - I appreciated you bringing the largest of "Why" questions into the forefront of the process.
Gregory Burgess, 2015-09-16 03:59:25
Interesting post and reflections. I like the way you think. Just wanna add that even frictionless moments for personal growth, serendipity, and self-reflection like waiting for the bus, standing in a que etc. are now replaced by time for killing 'contemporary boredome', i.e. playing Angry Birds and liking, commenting etc.
René Bach Lundgaard, 2015-06-02 03:32:36
Steve, what you describe as designing for "personal growth, serendipity, and self-reflection" is true human-centered design and the more appropriate definition of empathy. Sadly, the success of the 'empathy' as the new buzzword has made many just skim the surface and call it human-centered.
Ashish Goel, 2015-05-21 18:30:02
Steve, this is superb. I completely agree that it's important to not only improve the human-centered process with clients, but also within your internal team, and then--to your degree--within yourself. Great post that I'm saving to refer back to in the future! Thank you for writing and sharing.
Katie Crepeau, 2015-05-14 18:27:12
Steve... I truly love this paragraph: "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."
Emil Sotirov, 2015-05-12 18:35:09
Your asking such great questions. I've been asking myself these questions for a long time. I even have a pet project (which I will someday launch) that seeks to find added value on uselessness and friction. This was a great way to start a Monday.
Daniel Trattler, 2015-05-11 05:47:45
I would argue that the world is just as bad as it always has been and that it isn't getting any worse. I doubt that the systemic demise of the taxi industry is in anyway robbing us of some sort of formative experience as a society. I would argue that everything breaks down when you look at it from that level. From a micro level, are you putting joy into the world? Are you extracting joy from it? Stressing about impact beyond that level is most likely delusional if not egocentric. You can and should save YOUR world, but I don't think anyone should take the task of saving THE world. -Cheers
Ben Lewis, 2015-05-10 23:54:42
This is true. Dumbledore knew it: We sometimes have to choose between what is right and what is easy. Sometimes those are the same thing...but often they are not.
Fenton Hughes, 2015-05-10 01:22:17
This is a truly inspired post and I've been obsessed with this issue for quite some time. True, designers must not only dig deep into themselves in self-discovery exercises but also seek personal development. Thanks Steve Selzer.
Bruno Lucena, 2015-05-08 13:35:40
know thy selfie
Pierre Stokx, 2015-05-08 02:41:57

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