September 8, 2020
Empathy. A powerful word. A word that if not actively used within design research, can be fatal. IDEO defines empathy as “the ability to be aware of, understanding of, and sensitive to another person’s feelings and thoughts without having had the same experience.”
How might you ask is lack of empathy fatal? Over the weekend, I listened to the podcast 99 Percent Invisible’s Podcast Episode 363 Invisible Women, and I became enraged yet intrigued. When researchers fail to actively use empathy to consider all genders, information we have always trusted can no longer be accurate for all. For example, most of the medical research has been conducted with the male body in mind. This means that when a women is rushed into the ER, doctors will look for symptoms of what a heart attack looks like for a male. Therefore they are misdiagnosing the patient, which could be potentially fatal for her all because of biased research. The same lack of empathy exists with the testing of seatbelts in most cars. At most testing sites, the crash dummy is built to resemble a man’s body and the women’s body is not considered. This further effects the build of a drivers seat and will creative ineffectiveness solely because a women is driving. This means the design of many cars is not designed for a women, and seatbelts aren’t designed with the anatomy of breasts or pregnancy in mind.
Are you kidding me?
What other connections are there for me to make in the world like this? Surely there is plenty for me to discover if I had never considered these examples before. It is truly ironic that as a female I have always known there was issues yet never to this extent. How many more truths will I face that reveal the blatant sexism that exists within simple inventions such as a seatbelt?
(Sadly, I know there will be plenty.)
I know empathy as I’ve always known that word, but after listening to that podcast I realized there is more for me to practice. IDEO’s article called Empathy on the Edge dives into the manifestations of an empathetic designer and the practices that must occur to successfully design in a human centered. Their approaches to modern day challenges prove quite the opposite of what the podcast discussed. Many of IDEO’s practices use design empathy- an approach that draws upon people’s real world experiences to address challenges. IDEO doesn’t ignore that certain individuals exist or omit them from within their research. Instead the designers take the extra steps to place themselves in the experience of whoever their designs are impacting. When designers sought out to help ensure that a pharmaceutical company was empathetic to the small inconveniences that occurred within their injectable therapy, they planned a month long immersive experience. Employees were directed to take home four prototypes and give shelves mock injections once a week. After the experience was over, medical employees had a new understanding for the issues that patients dealt with. They knew what it felt like to be on the receiving end of that injectable therapy, and the designers provided an analogous experience for clients to foster empathy. Because design empathy existed in every moment of the research, their story was successful and designers were able to create a better experience for future patients where their struggle is included in the equation.
"People who cannot temporally let go of their role or status or set aside their own expertise or opinion will fail to empathize with others who have conflicting thoughts, experiences, or mental models.”
Know empathy, study empathy and exercise empathy.
IDEO'S Article Empathy on The Edge