Do I Need More Empathy for Our Customers?

Advice from The Sherwins for June 2019

Empathy Trap


Hello Sherwins,

My team has a big problem. I’m an engineer working on a cross-functional product team. We’re in the middle of a long project about a pretty serious topic, and it’s been hard, especially on the designers that had to do most of the research. One designer in particular is framing a lot of our product decisions around empathy. It was fine at first, but he recently accused me of having no empathy for our customers, saying that I obviously didn’t care about them. I do care, but he said that it didn’t look like I cared and that I didn’t even look upset at what our customers were going through.

I thought the problem was just with this one coworker, but how he talks about things feels contagious. More of our meetings are ending up with the designers asking if we care about this project because of some reason or another. One recently went to our project lead after we missed a deadline, saying that the engineers needed to work on their empathy skills.

What should I do?

J in Seattle

Hi J,

First off, we’d like to say that we’re sorry this is happening to you. How your team is talking about empathy isn’t helping you make better products, it’s distracting and destructive. Equating caring with having empathy and then further equating that with an expected emotional response like anger or sadness… that’s not how any of this works. So let’s get you our short answer first: Get management involved.

Let’s also get all of the HR things out of the way now, too. People process and display emotions in different ways. People care about some things more than other things. Just because someone cares about one thing doesn’t mean that they can’t care about anything else, also known as the Walk and Chew Gum Principle. And finally, just like in our personal relationships, it’s not acceptable for someone to tell you what you do or don’t feel.

It’s obvious that this is about something other than empathy. But let’s take this coworker at his word, just for a moment.

We frequently run an exercise where we ask people to define empathy and have them give specific examples. It’s similar to one from our book. In your case, we would ask your team, “If you designed with empathy, what would that look like?” And while this is a powerful exercise, definitions aren’t magic. They just present a basic set of behaviors, a bare minimum. After all, displaying empathy isn’t like doing 10,000 steps every day. You don’t do this one crazy trick and automatically become empathic. It’s not something that you can prove. And you shouldn’t have to.

Past all of this, J, there’s a broader issue at play. You’re not alone in this whole empathy situation.

The first thing we’d like you to entertain is that there’s not just one kind of empathy. Daniel Goleman, who writes a lot about emotional intelligence, has talked about how Paul Ekman frames the concept. (Yeah, Ekman, the human lie-detector guy.) It’s not a perfect framework, but it might be better than the model you’ve currently got. Ekman outlines three types of empathy: emotional, cognitive, and compassionate. They work in different ways, sometimes supporting each other, sometimes subverting each other. Ideally, you’ve got a little bit of each, and you’re emotionally prepared for how they play together.

To us, it feels like what’s happening on your team is similar to what’s happening in the industry around the topic of empathy. There are a lot of issues around how design treats the concept of empathy. It feels like everyone and their brother’s brother is talking about it, but the conversation is becoming increasingly limited to one view of empathy. Typically it looks like Ekman’s compassionate empathy, where we understand what a person is going through, identify with it, and are inspired to do something about it. (That call to action part is important, because design is about action, right?) Then we take that narrow view of empathy and apply it when it aligns with what we personally see as being right. It becomes very easy to look at people who are not doing what you want them to do and say: “I mean, don’t you care?”

That may be an outstanding line at a design conference, or a lovely bit of theatre in a meeting, but there’s no answering that question, J. It’s a trap.

We’re vocal when we think that empathy is missing, but we’re hard-pressed to move past that. Empathy always seems to be something we keep screwing up and that everyone just needs more of. No one’s really asking what would happen if we had enough of it and then working out a plan to get there. Also, it’s thorny to ask about the benefits of empathy. As in, why do we need more empathy, when in design, it’s being used to… make better products… that we can sell. This isn’t a topic you can just toss around during happy hour.

How did we get here? Like most things, probably through fear. In our opinion, the fear is this: that through our thoughtlessness, we will do something that hurts someone else. Design is powerful and can change people’s lives. Our products are in the pockets, homes, and psyches of millions of people, some of whom are probably being taken advantage of by companies that might be a little too similar to our own. We want to make things better, and we don’t want to mess things up. Our sense of responsibility, of ownership, of possibly using emojis on Slack to make life-changing decisions on behalf of our users… well… this will probably freak out both you and your coworkers more than a few times during your careers, if it hasn’t already. In general, people don’t want to be actively thought of as cruel.

At the same time, our companies have to be very cautious about how they talk about the impact of their products and services. If it goes too far, it can lead to troubling legal issues around liability, philosophical issues around free will, environmental issues around supply chain, and economic issues around… um… well, how if you don’t sell your product you go out of business and people lose their jobs. As designers, we say we have to understand our customers and the systems that surround them, but as we currently use the word empathy, that understanding has to have a limit. Remember, all of this talk around empathy is centered around products and services or possible products and services. We’ve never seen a user survey that asks: On a scale of 1 to 5, do you think we should make this product?

So empathy, and this corresponding drive to act, becomes one of our few defenses against a business model that would turn our ability to see the perspectives of others into cold, hard stock options. And in our desire to avoid being cruel or manipulative in how we frame our representations of the needs of our users, we can forget that we are just as human as they are. That the people on our teams are also human. That as soon as you ask anyone, a user or an engineer, “I mean, don’t you care?” you’ve ended the conversation. You don’t want an answer, you want to be right. And right is just an opinion that ignores the concept of time.

And while design is about many, many things, design is not about being right. Design is not anything minus time.

Go back to your team. Try the manager thing or the HR thing or the definitions thing, whatever you think will snap your teammates out of this cycle. Being so quick to beat anyone up about this creates a warped view of the concept of doing right with, by, and for others. You’ve witnessed this first-hand. You’ve seen how often empathy is used as a weapon rather than as a tool.

Products that rely on guilt will crumble, teams built on abuse will collapse. What happens when you start to add time, when you start to design? After we stop fighting about this, after we stop accusing one another of not caring, there has to be something else, something that comes next. And if we don’t want to end up fighting over the ashes, we have to move past the question about empathy. Not because empathy isn’t important. But because, as designers and as engineers and as people, we cannot keep tearing each other apart. We have work to do.

All best,
The Sherwins

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Send questions to questions (at) askthesherwins (daht) com. All questions become the property of Ask The Sherwins, LLC and may be edited. Our advice shouldn't be construed as a replacement for the appropriate legal or professional counsel. This advice will be around until June 30, 2019, unless you feel otherwise.