Empathy is one of the most important qualities for experience designers. What differs us from other professions is our desire to understand and be in other people’s shoes. So, when I first heard of Indi Young’ Practical empathy, I thought the book aims at non-UX folks, because we (UX designers) are all — you know — naturally empathetic.
Boy oh boy, was I wrong about that. The more I read the book, the more I learnt that (some of) what I've been doing was only scratching the surface of empathy. I became aware of my other dangerous assumptions, and how the burning desire of showing off our intelligence limits our ability to truly listen and understand others.
I’m guessing that if you’re reading this, it’s likely that you haven’t had time to read the book, maybe you’re rushing to UX bookclub Sydney and only have less than 15 minutes to soak it up. I’ll try to keep it short. But packing 200 pages of well-written and thought-out book into a 5 minutes read will not be easy, so bear with me.
If you have done your homework, you may like to skip the summary section and read the opinion piece.
In 670 words
Here’s the summary for each chapter:
1. Business is out of balance
Indi Young starts the book by critiquing the current immature data practice in most businesses, where numeric measurements of facts— who were the customers, what did they buy, where and when did they buy it — take priority over the story of motivation and intent- why did the customer buy so and so product, at that such and such store, on a particular day. To create truly useful product and services, you’ll need to know what makes a person tick, by empathising with them.
2. Empathy brings balance
In chapter 2, she defines empathy, discusses the six variations of empathy, and the two stages of empathising: develop empathy — listen to someone, and apply empathy — walk in their shoes.
3. Put empathy to work
Indi Young suggests having two parallel cycles in product development: one around people and the other one around idea. Most of research methods focuses more on solutions rather than on people.
4. A new way to listen
In chapter 4, Indi Young shows us a new way to listen, what to pay attention to and how to act in these listening sessions. This is by far the most interesting and surprising chapter of all for me, personally. A ‘listening session’, as she called it, is different from an interview.
You are there to explore the current inner thought process of the person, but not her preferences, opinions or feedback of a product or services. Most importantly, you can’t let your brain jump into conclusions, finding solutions, compare to what they say and what others have said. You should lose yourself in the person’s view of the world. In short, don’t play ‘the researcher’.
5. Make sense of what you heard
After many of these listening sessions — where you should not take note by the way — you can start compiling transcripts, pick out concepts and write concise summaries. In chapter 5, you can find practical advice on what to skip in the transcript, what to look out for, how to write an effective summary and what to avoid when writing them.
6. Apply empathy in what you create
When applying empathy to design, you should look for behavioural patterns either by memory, or across summaries, and choose to create personas. Caution: don’t let their demographics lead you astray from their behaviours!
In Western culture, using demographics as shorthand for people’s thinking is widespread. You get hit with it in media, entertainment, professional presentations, and casual conversation. People make demographic statements without knowing it, or they make demographic statement as hyperbole.
Try to use ‘I’ to describe a person’s thinking as a way to put yourself in their shoes and act out how they would think, or behave in different circumstances. Provide coherent stories that go with each idea/concept you come up with. Go further by exploring actual scenarios, represent the complex ecosystem of the idea, and try to solve the problem holistically.
7. Apply empathy in your work
The author points out that most companies often don’t invest time for employees in understanding one another. This leads to frustrations, project halts and poor work culture. Using empathy mindset at work can help foster trust, respect, better collaboration and harmony. Following a similar process to develop empathy and apply empathy, you can start to understand yourself, your peers and the company decision-makers.
8. Apply empathy within your organisation
Empathy can also be used to see things from the organisational perspective, so you can start from clarify the purpose of your organisation, make small changes, focus on the big picture and stay on track, instead of putting focus on methods or speeds.
9. Where do you go from here
You may find some of the wisdom coming out of this book rather overwhelming. Well, I did. The good news is:
‘you are not expected to embrace everything written here wholesale’
You can pick & choose what works for you, adapt the idea to your own context and mix it with other methods.
My 2 cents
What I really like
Slow down & go deeper: It’s a refreshing read, especially in the current landscape of celebrated rush success, fast economy, lean UX. The book ultimately advocates a slower design process, where we get into the depth of the human mind, and the bottom of what we are really trying to do. It also encourages the idea of humility, suppressing of self-projection and the culture of ‘me, me, me’.
Taking empathy & research to the next level: The book challenges my assumptions on empathy and research. I must admit it won’t be easy to let go of the analytical urge, and the researcher mindset, but I promise I’ll try the next time to listen, not interview.
Examples: I especially enjoy when she uses examples of past listening sessions to illustrate her methods. I only wish there were more of them, and even better if they all connect to tell a coherent story.
A weak business case for empathy: Although Indi spent a whole first chapter to discuss the immature practice of data analysis, I’m curious to see how many project managers, business leaders will take it. Understanding people by truly listening to them takes time, efforts, and money while the result of empathy is often harder to measure. Some big corporations with the right vision can invest in empathy development, but for smaller businesses I suspect this would be a low priority.
Listening is still not enough: What people say and what they do are often separate things. Human beings have the tendency to show or tell stories to depict ourselves in a more favourable light. It’s great that the book guides us on what to pay attention to and what to remove from the transcript such as opinions, preferences to get deeper into the ‘why’. But a person’s guiding principles can also be seen and felt by body languages, their interactions, and most importantly they are influenced consciously or subconsciously by their own background, their ecosystem.
I don’t know about you, but I would feel pretty uncomfortable being the subject of one of the listening sessions described in the book. Imagine being asked about your inner reasoning, reactions and guiding principles for about 55 minutes with a series of ‘Why?’ and ‘What was your thinking when…?’ Try it with the exercise ‘Know yourself’ in Chapter 7 and see how you go.
There is a fine line between feeling ‘Great, they're interested in my story and my thinking’ versus ‘Err, am I being scrutinised?’ Perhaps an experienced empathetic listener can pull this off by almost being invisible in the listening session. Yet I believe, like Ira Glass has said, one of the best ways to help people opening up is by sharing some of your own stories that they can relate to — without making it the focus of the conversation.
Last few words
Overall, the book is a very good read. Empathy is a skill, a mindset we need to practice and sharpen. We can develop and apply empathy not just for what we design, but also at work, and in relationship with others. I’m keen to hear what is your take on the book, so feel free to leave comments. Better yet, come joining us at UX Bookclub Sydney on Tuesday, 7 April 2015 to talk about it.
Get the book
We’ll be talking about the book at UX Bookclub Sydney this Tuesday, 7 April 2015.
Listen to a podcast
Watch 'Make a case for empathy'