Bryan Taylor

Sympathy for Empathy

The commitment to approach any problem with context is fundamental to the design thinking process. And more than context, it’s important to have the proper context — the kind of context that can only come from walking a mile in the shoes of the one with the problem we’re trying to solve.

Those of us who practice design thinking talk a lot about empathy, about how we always start with empathy, about the need for empathy before we can find meaningful solutions. Empathy has indeed been drilled into our practice — so much so that while at a recent design thinking conference, we heard attendees bemoan the fact that every talk seemed to center on empathy, as if they’d already had this empathy thing down and were ready to advance the conversation.

Personally, I am newer to this formal practice of design thinking. I feel like it is something that I have instilled into our agency’s way of doing things for the past 20 years — but in a more natural and organic sense. When I first spent some time studying this growing design thinking phenomenon, it felt very familiar, made sense, and really matched how we had always approached our work. The only real surprise I remember encountering was the nonchalance (and frequency) with which everyone used the word “empathy.”

"When we set out to develop empathy or sympathy for a problem we are trying to solve (or, really, for the people it impacts), we should never do so just to check a box in the process — that’s pointless."

My use of the word “empathy” had historically been reserved for experiences that I truly could understand because I had experienced them myself. “Sympathy,” on the other hand, is something that I can earn with time. I can sympathize with someone’s plight if I spend enough time understanding their context, their background, their obstacles. Through observation and interviews, I can sympathize with someone who is homeless, but, hopefully, I will not ever truly be able to empathize with their life circumstances. And no matter how many interviews I conduct or hours I log in observation, I can never, as a man, really understand exactly how it feels for a mother to hold her newborn child. So, I can sympathize with that moment, but not truly empathize. On the other hand, if that child grows up and tragically loses a sibling, I can actually empathize with that reality because I have actually endured that life experience first-hand.

Whether we describe the beginning of the design thinking process as requiring empathy or sympathy, I honestly couldn’t care less — I don’t get hung up on vocabulary. What I do care about is understanding why this step is essential to the design thinking process. 

Many years ago, I remember being asked to develop a brand for a new chain of drive-through kiosks that sold natural foods. The business plan included a series of references to scenarios involving a mother and three children looking for a quick and convenient snack that is also healthy and nutritious. “Let’s say a mother and her three children are driving to their Montessori school in their Subaru Forester...” You can probably guess a little bit about the owner of this new venture: a mother with three children in a Montessori school who drove a Subaru Forester. She was wanting to solve her own problem by starting a business that met her personal needs without really doing the work of discovering if it made business sense — and then, if it did, how it would make sense for customers who didn’t live her exact life.

In the end, the venture never got off the ground, and this is when I really learned how important it was to understand context, to understand people (and their needs and behaviors) beyond anyone’s personal assumptions. I might assume every mother wants a quick and convenient healthy food store, but that doesn’t mean it will make for a successful business. The only way I can be certain is to go ask, listen, and observe. And that is why I think that it’s so important to establish empathy/sympathy at the beginning of this design thinking process.

At the same time, we need to be careful when we assume that a few quick surveys and hours in observation give us real empathy. We can gather clues. We can begin to see patterns and formulate hypotheses. We can make informed assumptions about the problems we are trying to solve by sitting in them and around them. But we also need to remember this is not the same as real empathy, and that is okay. 

When we set out to develop empathy or sympathy for a problem we are trying to solve (or, really, for the people it impacts), we should never do so just to check a box in the process — that’s pointless. Nor should we feel like we can’t solve problems if we haven’t gone through the exact circumstances in life. By broadening our understanding of the context — understanding not just the quick and obvious, but also understanding the business factors, the financial implications, the supply chain model, the limitations being faced, the cultural influences to be navigated, our own personal influences, our personal fears, our professional hopes, and on goes the list — we can build better, more seamless, more natural solutions.

The more complete our contextual understanding becomes, the more we can empathize and sympathize, and the more informed we become as we ideate, prototype, test, and deploy our design thinking outcomes, all with an honest understanding of the context of the problems we are trying to solve.