Cultivating empathic design in an analytical world

There is an empathy gap in technology development. In the analytic, data-driven world of Silicon Valley, emotions often do not get factored into the latest product design.

This comes down to the way engineers and technicians think, says Anthony Jack, the director of the mind, brain, and consciousness lab at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. The more people exercise the analytic functions of their brains, the less empathetic they become. Likewise, when we empathise, we turn off the analytic function of the brain.

“There is a cognitive tension between these two different types of understanding,” he said.

That tension appears in the hallways of Google and Facebook, where technical thinkers reign. Understanding how people in Africa use a product, or how people who speak Dutch use it, often starts with looking at data.

“Google acquires and uses a lot of data in product development. It’s both a blessing and a curse,” said Bradley Horowitz, vice president of product for Google+.

At the Wisdom 2.0 Conference in San Francisco, Mr Jack urged technology leaders to do more to incorporate empathic-minded people into the production process, so that their tools were more relevant and useful to everyday folk.

“It’s still hard for a Google employee to really understand what it’s like for an average user to use a Google product,” Mr Jack said.

Relying on the technicians to expand their “empathic imagination” would only go so far. They needed to add at least one member to every team who has an empathic focus. And because analytic types tend to be dismissive, he said, that person needs to have equal power on the team.

Along these lines, Jane Fulton Suri, the creative director at IDEO, a design studio, has helped to develop what she calls an “empathic design process”.

“It’s really a mind set,” she said. “It’s really about working hard to come at design and innovation from a place that’s deeply and viscerally connected to the kinds of experiences that other people in the world are having.”

She gave the example of a team that worked with Bank of America when they wanted to develop a new product that would attract more baby boomer-generation women to open accounts with them.

Designers went to the homes of women in their 50s and 60s and talked to them about their banking habits, how they balance their check books, and their fears and angst around money. One woman relayed that when she wrote a check to pay a bill, she always rounded the amount up to the nearest dollar. It was her way of feeling like she was ahead on her credit, a way of feeling control over something that always seemed to be controlling her.

The designer brought this anecdote back to the team. And people could visualise the jar of loose change left over from buying coffee where people save up for their next holiday.

“In telling that story, a reflection occurs through empathy, and people see abstractly through that to a pattern,” Ms Suri said.

The team took the empathic story, combined it with loads of statistical analysis, and developed a programme for Bank of America called “Keep the Change,” a debit card that rounds up purchases to the nearest dollar, with BofA matching the nickels and dimes for a few months.

“It’s been a phenomenal success for them,” Ms Suri said.

Bringing this kind of process to more companies caught up in the competitive, rapid-fire pace of software and hardware development could take some effort.

But the number of attendees and speakers at Wisdom 2.0 hailing from Google, Facebook, Cisco and others, signals great interest and commitment to the general concept, Mr Horowitz said.

“My experience has been, given the conditions, and invited to slow down and observe and be curious about your own behaviour, people have amazing resources in empathy,” Ms Suri said. “But it needs to be given a space, and respected.”