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The Case Against Empathy

Designers love to tout their ability to empathize with users. But too much empathy can kill a company. Here’s what to do instead.

The Case Against Empathy
[Photo: Kelvin Murray/Getty Images]

The following is an excerpt from The Way to Design, a guide to becoming a designer founder and to building design-centric businesses. It was adapted and reprinted with the author’s permission.

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I’ve had my fill of empathy. Or to be more specific, all the talk of empathy in recent years. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for a human-centric approach to design, one that puts users first and attempts to understand how the world looks to them. But in design circles and many other fields, empathy has become little more than a buzzword, which, at its most vacuous, seems to mean nothing more than a soft bleating sound made when a small animal is in pain. At its most cynical, it’s a Silicon Valley euphemism for market research. As one colleague pungently put it, “Empathy is a rathole.” I wouldn’t go quite so far; but for the sake of semantic integrity, alone, I think that we as a community of design thinkers should self-impose an 18-month moratorium on using the word.

“Empathy” was Ideo founder David Kelley’s shorthand for in-the-weeds ethnographic research. And, to be fair, that’s what some design thinkers still have in mind. But as design thinking has grown in popularity, some of its core tenets have been watered down or misapplied. Perhaps as a result of overuse, when most designers talk about empathy, they don’t seem to me to be referring to fact-gathering at all, but something more like feeling-broadcasting. Empathy in design has gone from an outward-facing action to an inward-turned affect. I think it might be too late to protect the design-thinking denotation of the word from the layman’s definition. Regardless, I would urge us as a discipline to practice rigorous evidence-based compassion, rather than trying to feel people’s pain.

[Photo: Luis Llerena/Unsplash]
First of all, empathy as an emotion has its limits, as Yale psychologist Paul Bloom has argued persuasively. As the recent presidential election underscored, the average tech worker in Silicon Valley can only go so far in understanding the thinking of Trump voters in the Rust Belt and South, and vice versa. When we’re talking about building things to be used by hundreds of millions of people, there’s no way a highly paid 20-something white male designer at Uber or Instagram or Google can reasonably hope to empathize with end users in parts of the country or world with which he’s had no meaningful contact. To truly understand this audience, he would have to go live among them: interview them; gather intel on their behaviors, lifestyle, and concerns; probe how they make use of the products he makes. Old-school design-thinking “empathy.”

Moreover, in my own extensive experience working with designers—I was a product designer at Ideo for many years, have invested in many designer-founded startups, and was the lead investor in Designer Fund—it’s struck me that decisions are often made at the end of sentences that began with phrases like “I believe” or “I feel.” But today, we don’t have to rely solely on gut emotions like empathy, and we can go even further than ethnography. We can let the data tell us what will work and what won’t. We can use tools like Optimizely to test multiple designs in real-time; to compare alternative concepts in minutes and hours rather than weeks or months; to let data weave its way into the design process.

Most designers and many engineers have heard of the concept of “T-shaped” people—individuals with depth in a given domain complemented by a familiarity with and, at a minimum, a healthy respect for the adjacent disciplines required to build and launch a successful product. But if you want to build enduring companies and really earn your seat at the table, I think you need to be π-shaped. That is, you need to have depth in both the creative and the analytical. Left- and right-brained. Empathetic and data-driven.

This isn’t to say you should always defer to the data. Algorithms can’t fully account for the human element. Take the story of Airbnb cofounders Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky. In 2009, rentals weren’t taking off; they had no investors and a lot of credit card debt; the business was close to going bust. Joe told me when I interviewed him for my project on designer founders that if he had listened to the metrics, he would’ve shuttered the service and cut his losses.

 

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We had been struggling for so long when we finally sat down with the early adopters. Talk to us—what are your issues? Oh my God, the thing we thought took two clicks, took 12! We were way wrong. It felt like this moment of enlightenment, seeing the world through their eyes. We gathered all those sources, stimuli, observations, and came back to SF, and we got smart because of it.

Now, many thought Airbnb’s basic business model wasn’t workable. Think about it. You’re offering your home . . . to strangers . . . on the internet. Or, on the other side of the screen, you’re looking for a way to sleep . . . in someone else’s home . . . the home of a stranger you met on the internet. The New York revelation for Brian and Joe was that what they were really trying to build, at the heart of the matter, wasn’t an online rental market—it was trust. Trust between the property owners and renters; and trust in the Airbnb platform. They took what they learned and made a few simple design enhancements to push through people’s psychological “Stranger!” barrier. They added attractive, reassuring images and edited the UI so that there were no “sharp edges,” and Airbnb’s rentals skyrocketed as a result.

For months, the data were telling Joe and Brian that their idea was never going to take off, and they should go work on something else. But they refused to listen. Because the data can tell you what’s happening, but they can’t tell you why it’s happening—especially when it comes to radical new ideas. In a way, they were also refusing to listen to the users, who were saying at the time that they weren’t very interested in what Airbnb had to offer either. Instead, Brian and Joe soldiered on and did things to save their startup that couldn’t be defended by the numbers because they were insane had a vision. And in the final analysis, no amount of empathy is a substitute for vision.

In fact, too much empathy can kill your company. If you think design is going out, ex ante, asking users what they want and then trying to give it to them, you will fail. As Steve Jobs said, “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Or, as I sometimes like to put it, invention is the mother of necessity. Build something, put it out in the world, collect data, collect feedback, make adjustments. Listen to your users in real-time, but don’t be a slave to narrow consumer cravings. Build; don’t ask.

Now, not every idea hits its target, and of course, there are plenty of products that don’t deserve to exist. But I can tell you for sure that the most successful startups are those that created the markets that they ultimately owned. And at one time in their life, many, if not most, onlookers thought it was a crazy or stupid idea. These founders—like Jobs, like Joe—navigated their way through the fog by figuring out when to listen to the market and when to listen to their inner compass.

So, don’t be overly moved by empathy. Have a vision of the future that you want to bring people into the light of. Then provide the one thing that we as designers are best capable of providing: creative leadership.

 

Steve Vassallo is general partner at Foundation Capital and the author of The Way to Design.

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