How to Wield Empathy

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  • At at recent workshop, I conducted a spontaneous interview as a demonstration of what I mean by “create a scope perimeter within which any conversation can happen.” I asked for a volunteer and for a topic. The volunteer was Daren. The topic was air travel. I scoped the topic down to “planning and booking air travel” just to have a good place to start, and also added “handling the day of travel.”

    So, with both of us standing at the front of the room, I asked Daren about his thought process as he planned and booked his last flight. He said, “Well, it was a multi-leg flight, and so I knew it would be hard to set up online. So I called. I like to call, anyway. I fly Southwest mostly, and they have really nice reps.” I asked him what he meant by “nice reps.” The conversation flowed. He was great at describing how he thought. Then he said, “But actually, the customer service at Southwest has changed. It has gotten worse.” “How so?” I asked. “Well, recently I flew with my wife and our toddler. As we were walking down the aisle boarding, I was holding my son’s hand. Somehow he fell and cut his lip. Luckily we were right near a flight attendant, so I asked her for some gauze or a Band-aid or something. She told me there wasn’t any on board, turned away, and just started talking with another passenger. She totally saw my boy’s bloody lip! I was so angry!” I wondered out loud, “What did you do?” “I searched my pockets and found a tissue–a dirty tissue–and used it to clean up my son’s lip. And my wife was kind of upset at me for letting it happen, so I was also feeling guilty about the whole thing. But I did get up and find the flight attendant and write down her name. I was SO going to complain to management about her!” “And …?” I prompted. “Well, I cooled off during the flight. She actually came up to us later and was really friendly and helpful. So I decided it would be too much effort to write up a complaint–it wasn’t worth it. But I have switched airlines. I used JetBlue on my last business flight.” “Why them?” “Oh, I pass their billboard on the highway every morning. I heard they have seatback screens, and I’d like that. I don’t like craning my neck to see the screen all the time.” The conversation continued in this vein …

    … then I switched topics to “handling the day of travel” just to demonstrate a different type of topic. Daren started out describing his latest business trip on JetBlue. He said, “I like to get to the airport early, like really early, to avoid stress. Maybe I’ll sit there and read or work or something.” I asked him about his reasons for avoiding stress. He told me, then gave me this example. “On this last trip I spent an hour looking for food. You don’t get food on the plane anymore, so you have to buy it ahead of time. Well, I have special dietary needs. Actually, my son has the allergies, but my wife and I eat the same as him just to make things easy. He’s allergic to wheat, dairy, nuts, and eggs. So I had to run around looking for something that I could eat. I told myself that morning that I wasn’t going to cheat. Sure, it would be easier to just grab something and go, because I’m not the one who’s allergic, and my son wasn’t with me. But, I wanted to not cheat. So I looked for an Asian place first. Those are usually good–rice is good. But the one I found had teriyaki, which has soy sauce in it. Soy sauce is made with wheat. So I finally ended up at a place that had hamburgers. I bought a hamburger and fries and threw out the buns. I ordered a half pounder because I thought I would need the extra calories if I was going to throw out the buns. I told them no cheese and no mayo. I actually bought two: one to eat then for breakfast and one to eat later on the plane.” He continued on with his description. “When I arrived in New York, it was late, but I was hungry again. The only place open was a Jamba Juice, so I thought I could get a smoothie. I spent 20 minutes looking at their menu and realized that all their drinks either had dairy in them or gluten in them.” “What did you decide to do?” I asked. “I was hungry, but I just convinced myself to walk away and go get a cab to the hotel. I stood there 20 minutes first.”

    That’s a lot of emotion!

    His determination to not cheat on the dietary restrictions of his son stuck with me 30 minutes later, when I went to lunch. I walked into my favorite quick lunch spot: Specialties Cafe & Bakery. It was a relatively new store, and they had these tethered iPads for placing orders. As I browsed through the sandwiches, I tried thinking like Daren did. What sandwich could I buy without wheat, dairy, nuts, or eggs?

    Immediately I adopted his approach of throwing out the bread. (Waah! The bread they bake is lovely, and it’s pure and simple!) And it looked like I would have to throw out the cheese as well. Wait! There was a peanut butter and banana sandwich–no cheese! Oh, but nuts. Okay, not peanut butter. If I threw out the bread, and the cheese, and asked for no mayo, I would be left with deli meat, lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickle. Wait, could I eat the pickle? Was it pickled using any wheat, like soy sauce contains wheat? I wasn’t sure, so I left off the pickle, too. What I was left with was pretty meager, and I knew I couldn’t order my favorite cookie to make up for it because of the wheat and eggs and butter. I paused. And sighed. And decided that I had pretended to be Daren for long enough and ordered the peanut butter and banana sandwich with a cookie. I cheated. I felt bad about it.

    This is what I mean by empathy. I felt bad about it.

    Empathy sounds all wonderful, but it’s powerless unless you try out the life of the person you’re trying to empathize with. You won’t experience the remorse of cheating on dietary restrictions if you don’t try to apply those dietary restrictions honestly. I tell people it’s similar to what an actor must go through when studying a character. It’s the act of leaving yourself behind and stepping into the thought-processes of another person.

    When you are designing, how much time do you spend in your own head, applying your own perspective, and how much time do you spend in someone else’s mindset? Next time you’re designing, try to spend more of the time outside of your own perspective. Make this into a practice. Say things about how you would encounter the design with an “I,” but this “I” is the “I” of another human being. “I am starving. I am tired from that long flight from San Francisco, and I’m slightly peeved that all the food places in the airport are closed this late at night. So I’m thrilled to see that Jamba Juice is open–I anticipate gulping down some fruity smoothie within a few minutes. But first I must adhere to my practice–what ingredients are in each drink available? I must read each description very carefully for wheat or wheat by-products. I must scan for dairy. I assume there are no nuts or eggs in these drinks, but I keep that in mind, too, as I study each drink, one by one. I have to set my backpack down beside my suitcase because it is so heavy and this is taking so long …”

    Make empathy a bigger part of your design process.

    One Response to “How to Wield Empathy”

    1. Indi, your ability to empathize is something I have a lot of respect for. I’m a career counselor so I’m familiar with the importance of empathy but I haven’t thought of it from this perspective. I’m looking forward to your talk tomorrow evening at the Tinderbox meetup. Thanks for the fascinating insight into empathy and UX design.