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Empathy...what is the problem?

A little over a month ago I moved to the US after teaching overseas for 15 years.  My ex-wife and I were teaching in the Sultanate of Oman, and decided to come back to the United States with our two children. We have settled on opposite ends of the same quaint New England town in Connecticut.  The children (ages 12 and 14) are enrolled in the local public school system.  This move has been no joke.  Exciting and fun, but exhausting and scary.  And not close to being done either. There are tough times ahead, as well as exciting chapters for us to live.  We are in the dreaded neutral zone of all transitions, where everything is exciting and crappy all at once. Ride it out, the books say.  New beginnings await!

Trying to post weekly whilst choosing everything from dish towels to a new home to live in is a taller order than I had predicted.  I soon realized  that I can just write short posts. I can tease an idea out of my brain, post it, and then perhaps come back to it another day when I have more space in my brain to spar a little with that idea.


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In the work that I have started to do with maginative I have had the opportunity to look more deeply the true value of empathy as the starting point of the design thinking cycle.  For those not familiar with design thinking, it is an iterative problem solving system that begins with empathy.  That is, you start to figure out your path by exploring what the problem is that you are trying to solve. Empathizing means that you devote time and energy to asking the involved stakeholders what the solution looks like for them.  This is an incredible yet embarrassingly simple adjustment. You are not designing a solution that solves the problem that you perceive, you are addressing the problem that your end user experiences. I can not think of a more basic understanding, yet organizations continue to churn out solutions for problems without ever consulting the end user.

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             Colin Crowley, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A great example of this is illustrated by David Kelley (a founder of IDEO as well as the in his interview on the Design Better podcast. He tells of how a group of students were working on trying to help the residents of Nairobi's shanty towns. They were experiencing a large number of housefires, and the team wanted to help the community to figure out a solution. Before going to Kenya (before the empathy phase could begin), the team of course worked on fire prevention solutions etc. Once they arrived in Nairobi and were able to talk and learn about the problem from the residents first hand, the learned that the highest priority for them was not saving their houses (which were very basic shacks made of corrugated iron and cardboard), but it was safeguarding their documents from being destroyed in the fires. Their medical records, birth certificates, deeds to property, licenses etc.  And so the focus of the group shifted.  They bought electronic equipment and loaded it onto trucks, and went around scanning documents into the cloud, and teaching residents how to access those digital copies. They also worked on fire prevention solutions.

Without empathy it is easy to miss the mark completely. It even smacks of arrogance a little to assume that you understand everything about a problem without knowing how others might experience it. This is an idea that I want to revisit often, as it is central to being an innovative problem solver and designer.